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A greater military role in Asia for Japan?

Publication Date : 05-06-2014


Japan wants to play a more proactive role in Asia, while the United States is backing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's plan to reorient the Japanese self-defence forces toward actively helping build a peaceful and resilient regional order in Asia.

Last Friday, Abe delivered a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a security forum with many defence chiefs in attendance, in which he laid out a vision of Tokyo as a counterweight to the growing might of Beijing and offered Japan's help “to ensure security in the seas and skies.” He said Japan and the United States stood ready to bolster security cooperation with Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

In the latest tense moment, Vietnam on Thursday accused Chinese warships of pointing their weapons at Vietnamese vessels during a standoff near an oil rig in the contested waters of the South China Sea. China is also in dispute with Japan over the small archipelago in the East China Sea that Tokyo calls the Senkakus and Taipei and Beijing refer to as Tiaoyutai and Diaoyu, respectively. On May 25, Japan accused China of “dangerous” maneuvers in the area after a Chinese fighter flew within roughly 30 metres of a Japanese military aircraft.

Abe also blasted Beijing by saying any move to consolidate changes to the status quo by aggregating one fait accompli after another can only be strongly condemned as something that contravenes the spirit of the rule of law.

That's an unjust accusation. Taiwan as well as China claim sovereignty over the Tiaoyutai/Daiyu/Senkaku Islands as well as the Paracel and Spratley Islands in the South China Sea. These were returned to the Republic of China at the end of the Second World War after a brief five-year Japanese occupation. Japan occupied them before Pearl Harbor and placed them under the jurisdiction of Takao (Kaohsiung) Prefecture of the then-Japanese colony of Taiwan.

The Chinese construction of the oil rig near the Paracels isn't a fait accompli like the Japanese establishing Manchukuo in Manchuria in 1932, which was followed by more faits accomplis that enabled Japan to create its Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere with Manchukuo and Wang Jingwei's China as its two anchors. Japan broke the rule of law by invading China. The People's Republic isn't an aggressor.

To refute the Abe accusation, Fu Ying, head of the foreign affairs committee of China's National People's Congress, charged him with trying to use the dispute as an excuse to “amend the security policy of Japan” and pointed out “that is what is worrying to the region, and for China.”

That isn't a just accusation, either.

It is true that Abe is planning to exercise the right of collective self-defence with the encouragement of Uncle Sam. Under the plan, Japan will be able to come to the defence of the United States or other countries, even if Japan itself is not under attack. It requires a reinterpretation of the pacifist Japanese constitution that allows the military to use force only to defend Japan.

Beijing criticized Abe for taking “negative actions” that raised concerns about Japan's true motives. Its foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying urged Japan “to respect the legitimate and reasonable security concerns of countries in the region, adhere to the path of peaceful development, earnestly face up to and reflect on history and play a constructive role in the region's peace and stability.”

It is understandable for China, with its brutal and bitter experience of Japanese occupation during the Second World War, to express serious concerns about Japan's negative actions, but there shouldn't be any worry that Japan is going to repeat its pre-war folly of invading China and Southeast Asia. Don't meet trouble halfway.

On the other hand, to reinterpret the constitution to make it possible for Japan's self-defence forces to help its collective security partners if they fall under attack is purely a domestic affair in which no other country in the world should interfere. It's the people of Japan who make the decision.

Surveys show public opinion is mixed. While opponents fear the war-renouncing clauses of the constitution would be undermined, supporters think the change is necessary because they believe threats from China and North Korea make Japan's ban on collective self-defence inadequate.

North Korea's threats are real, but China has no stomach for fighting Japan. All Abe has to do to keep peace with China is to admit there is the sovereignty dispute over the Senkakus and start a dialogue with Beijing.

Are the Japanese people concerned that the sovereignty disputes in the faraway South China Sea may erupt into a skirmish that requires Japan's help even though there is no security agreement with Vietnam or the Philippines?


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