Japan's prudent constitutional move

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2014 - 5:55 PM

Proposed move toward “collective self-defense” also aids U.S.

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Japan may soon become a more valuable military ally to the United States.

On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet approved a reinterpretation of the country’s postwar pacifist constitution that would allow for collective self-defense. The measure is likely to be approved in the Diet, Japan’s parliament, because Abe’s governing coalition enjoys majorities in each house.

If approved, the shift would mean that Japan’s military would no longer be constitutionally relegated to only self-defense, but could also come to the aid of allies like the United States.

For instance, if U.S. troops came under fire, or a missile was fired at America, Japan currently could not intervene if its troops or citizens were not under direct attack. The constitutional revision would allow Japan’s technologically advanced military to defend its ally.

The move is a sensible evolution that should bolster U.S.-Japan bilateral relations. But the United States isn’t the only country that should welcome the move. China’s rapid rise and North Korea’s constant provocations have both destabilized East Asia. Japan’s shift can help bolster regional security. Ideally, adopting collective self-defense will act as a deterrent to any military miscalculations that could spiral the region toward war, and instead facilitate the true objective — settling disputes diplomatically.

And there are plenty of disputes roiling the region. North Korea remains a rogue, bellicose, nuclear-armed threat to regional and global stability. And China has asserted territorial claims in the East and South China Seas that are in direct conflict not just with Japan, but also with South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The flash points and the ever-increasing economic and geopolitical importance of Asia are two of the main motivations for the Obama administration’s planned diplomatic “pivot” (rebranded as a “rebalancing”) to Asia. That policy got a big boost with Abe’s move, which had been urged by the United States.

“It signals a Japan that sees itself more closely entwined with U.S. interests in the region,” said Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow for Japanese studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “[Abe’s] looking beyond the alliance to look at other security partners that are also partners of the United States in the region. For the pivot you couldn’t ask for a better outcome, because it basically helps diversify and build networks in the Asia-Pacific region that otherwise would be very hard to build.”

These networks are needed to help manage China’s rise, which is the tacit objective of the pivot. History is replete with rising powers that have upended established orders. War is often the result. Japan, ironically, is a prime example.

And in fact, Japan’s militarism and barbarism against neighboring nations last century have raised understandable alarms over Abe’s move. But Japan’s prime minister has taken great pains to explain to citizens — as well as governing coalition partner, the more pacifist New Komeito party — that the reinterpretation will not propel Japan into wars like Iraq.

“This is not going to change Japan into a country that wages wars,” Abe said in a nationally televised address. “A strengthened Japan-United States alliance is a force of deterrence that contributes to the peace of Japan and this region.”

Abe’s reassurances on the constitutional revision are important, but more needs to be said about and to former victims of Japan’s wartime past, as well. In particular, relations with South Korea have cooled because of “history issues,” like the so-called “comfort women” who were forced into wartime sexual servitude. Abe’s nationalism should not be conflated with militarism. But the prime minister needs to lead the more hawkish members of his party into toning down rhetoric that sometimes suggests that Japan no longer has to atone for wartime actions.

Unspoken but unmistakable in the move to adopt collective self-defense are doubts about an America stretched thin by chronic crises in the Mideast, Eastern Europe and other global hot spots, as well as in Washington, where political gridlock and a busted budget challenge U.S. capabilities. There should be no doubt, however, that the United States would live up to its treaty obligations if Japan were attacked.

Japan’s transition may seem abrupt and may be troubling to some. But more concerning would be a country unwilling to defend its allies if they came under attack, as well as a country that will not take more responsibility for regional security. Abe’s move to reinterpret the constitution, as well as the willingness of Japanese citizens and allies to keep Japan in check, should help accomplish Abe’s goal of making Japan a more “normal” nation.

  • Positive for the pivot

    “This is great news for the alliance. This is great news for the pivot. … They are a responsible democracy, they have the same values that we do and the same security goals in the region. … They are starting to adopt a security role that is more commensurate with their potential.”

    JENNIFER LIND, associate professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College

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