Mon, Oct 26, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Japan needs to rearm to bolster regional stability and boost GDP

By Brahma Chellaney

Japan’s political resurgence is one of this century’s most consequential developments in Asia. However, it has received relatively little attention, because observers have preferred to focus on the country’s prolonged economic woes. Those woes are real, but Japan’s ongoing national-security reforms and participation in the new 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership have placed it firmly on the path to reinventing itself as a more secure, competitive and internationally engaged country.

Japan has historically punched above its weight in world affairs. In the second half of the 19th century, Japan became Asia’s first modern economic success story. It went on to defeat Manchu-ruled China and Czarist Russia in two separate wars, making it Asia’s first modern global military power. Even after its crushing World War II defeat and occupation by the US, Japan managed major economic successes, becoming by the 1980s a global industrial powerhouse, the likes of which Asia had never seen.

Media tend to depict Japan’s current economic troubles in almost funereal terms. While it is true that the economy has stagnated for more than two decades, real per capita income has increased faster than in the US and the UK so far this century. Moreover, the unemployment rate has long been among the lowest of the wealthy economies, income inequality is the lowest in Asia and life expectancy is the longest in the world.

It is Japan’s security, not its economy, that merits the most concern today — and Japan knows it. After decades of contentedly relying on the US for protection, Japan is being shaken out of its complacency by fast-changing security and power dynamics in Asia, especially the rise of an increasingly muscular and revisionist China vying for regional hegemony.

Chinese military spending now equals the combined defense expenditure of France, Japan and the UK; just a decade ago, pacifist Japan outspent China on defense.

China has not hesitated to display its growing might. In the strategically vital South China Sea, the People’s Republic has built artificial islands and military outposts, and it has captured the disputed Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) from the Philippines. [Taiwan also claims it.]

In the East China Sea, it has unilaterally declared an air-defense identification zone covering territories that it claims, but does not control.

With US President Barack Obama hesitating to impose any costs on China for these aggressive moves, Japan’s leaders are taking matters into their own hands. Recognizing the inadequacy of Japan’s existing national-security policies and laws to protect the country in this new context, the government has established a national security council and moved to “normalize” its security posture. By easing Japan’s longstanding, self-imposed ban on arms exports, boosting defense spending and asserting its right to exercise “collective self-defense,” the government has opened the path for Japan to collaborate more actively with friendly countries and to pursue broader overseas peacekeeping missions.

To be sure, Japan’s security-enhancing efforts have so far been limited in scope, and do not open the way for the country to become a militaristic power. Restrictions on deployment of offensive weapons, for example, remain in place.

Nonetheless, the government’s moves have proved divisive in a country where pacifism is embedded in the constitution and widely supported by the population. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 23 percent of Japanese want their country to play a more active role in Asian security.

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