Imagine that North Korea launched a missile at Japan. Tokyo would certainly try to shoot it down. However, if the missile were flying overhead toward Hawaii or the continental US, Japan would have to sit idly by.
Japan’s military is kept on a very short leash under a constitution written by US officials whose main concern was keeping Japan from rearming after World War II. However, if Japan’s likely next prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has his way, the status quo may be in for some change.
Abe, set to take office for a second time after leading his party to victory in elections on Sunday, has vowed a fundamental review of Japan’s taboo-ridden postwar security policies and proposed ideas that range from changing the name of the military — now called the Japan Self-Defense Forces — to revising the constitution itself.
Most of all, he wants to open the door to what the Japanese call “collective defense,” which would allow Japan’s troops to fight alongside their allies if either comes under direct attack.
“With the US defense budget facing big cuts, a collapse of the military balance of power in Asia could create instability,” Abe said in the run-up to the election, promising to address the collective defense issue quickly. “We must foster an alliance with the United States that can hold up under these circumstances.”
While welcome in Washington, which is looking to keep its own costs down while beefing up its Pacific alliances to counterbalance the rise of China, Abe’s ideas are raising eyebrows in a region that vividly remembers Japan’s brutal rampage across Asia 70 years ago.
“The issue of whether Japan can face up to and reflect upon its history of aggression is what every close neighbor in Asia and the global community at large are highly concerned about,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) told a news conference in Beijing this week.
Even so, many Japanese strategists believe change is long overdue.
Japan has one of the most sophisticated military forces in the world and an annual defense budget that is the world’s sixth largest.
“We should stand tall in the international community,” said Narushige Michishita, who has advised the government on defense issues and is the director of the security and international program at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
“These are good, well-trained conventional forces,” he said. “We are second to none in Asia. So the idea is why don’t we start using this. We don’t have to start going to war. We can use it more effectively as a deterrent. If we get rid of legal, political and psychological restraints, we can do much more. We should start playing a larger and more responsible in international security affairs.”
Outside of constrained participation in UN-sanctioned peacekeeping operations and other low-intensity missions, Japan’s military is tightly restricted to national defense and humanitarian assistance. Such restrictions have long been one of Abe’s pet peeves
It is not clear how effectively or how soon he will be able to push the military issue, since stimulating the nation’s economy will be his first task, and he faces strong opposition in parliament.
However, with the daily cat-and-mouse game between the Chinese and Japanese coast guards over disputed islands not expected to end soon, polls indicate support for beefing up the military is stronger than ever.