The transformation of Japan’s post-war “peaceful” armed forces into an offensive military could have profound implications for the region, including Taiwan. The transformation might come about in the face of challenges in Japan’s neighborhood — particularly the emergence of nuclear North Korea and China’s growing assertiveness — but also the growing doubts over the reliability of the US to provide security.
The New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, the US’ leading think tank on foreign affairs, recently held a discussion on Japan’s possible militarization while launching a new book called Japan Rearmed: The Politics of Military Power, whose author, Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the council, was quizzed by council president Richard Haass, a noted US foreign policy expert and an author of several books on foreign policy issues.
Smith, considered an authority on Japan and US-Japan ties, said that Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, effective since May 3, 1947, prohibits war as a means of settling international disputes involving the state. Under this article, Japan renounced the sovereign right of belligerency, and committed to work for peace through diplomacy and other state means.
However, Japan already maintains de facto armed forces, referred to as the Japan Self-Defense Forces. In July 2014, the Japanese government approved a reinterpretation that gave more powers to the Self-Defense Forces, allowing them to defend other allies in case of war being declared upon them, despite opposition from China, South Korea and North Korea. The US supported Japan’s move.
Smith explained the nuance in her book’s title — Japan Rearmed, rather than “Japan rearming.”
“The point of the book, really, is to acknowledge that Japan has been a major military power for decades, despite the debate over its constitution and despite its hesitancy in the use of force, particularly in coalition and offshore of Japanese territory. The Self-Defense Force has been very limited in the scope it’s been given, but it is a significant military power. And so I wanted to make sure that we were talking not about yesterday’s headlines, but we were really talking about the changing debate in Japan about how that military power is used as part of Japanese national strategy,” she wrote.
While Haass considered Japan one of the world’s leading, but more underestimated military powers, Smith said that it has been very good for Japan to continue to reiterate — as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his predecessors did — that Japan and Japanese are committed to peace.
Smith said that there was a rethinking in Japan about Article 9 governing the armed forces.
“And the last significant policy change that involved reinterpretation [of Article 9] was when the Abe Cabinet in 2014 said we are going to allow our military to operate and use force alongside other national militaries, again, for the purpose of Japanese security. So [this is] still within this constraint, but much more elastic than it’s ever been in the past,” she wrote.
What will this mean for Taiwan?
Taiwan, as Haass put it, is an issue “that doesn’t perhaps get the attention it should, and there’s those of us who think that it’s something of a sleeper issue and the potential for crisis there is greater than is generally appreciated.”
Pointing out the very close proximity of Japan’s southern islands to Taiwan, Smith said that if the Chinese air force or navy started to operate close to Taiwan, “they’re also operating not that far away from Japan.”
The Japan-Taiwan relationship has been typically fairly close.
“It’s not always, you know, as close as it has been under the Abe Cabinet. The Taiwanese also have a claim on the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands [Diaoyutais, 釣魚台] ... but they very astutely found a deal to allow their fishermen to fish in waters, and so they delinked themselves from the Sino-Japanese conflict over the islands effectively, I think,” Smith wrote.
However, if something were to happen — in other words, a use of force incident or “something that would undo, I think, the peace that we’ve long become accustomed to across the Taiwan Straits — the Japanese are very close militarily, and our [US] bases are also very close, and we would be using military bases on Japanese territory. And ... if there is a military conflict, I suspect the Japanese would be prepared to support the United States. And how forward-leaning that support would be I think would be dependent on how egregious the Chinese behavior might be,” she added.
If Japan did indeed embark on an offensive militarization, it would, invariably, ring alarm bells in North and South Korea, and particularly in China, which has, for historical reasons, been distrustful of Japan’s offensive military role. The US would probably intensify its presence in the region for strategic reasons, notwithstanding US President Donald Trump’s recent demand that allies have to contribute more for US protection.
Taiwan, which has been receiving US arms under the Taiwan Relations Act for its defense, could also find a window of opportunity to move closer to Japan, which would be more sympathetic to it against China. Japan’s geographical proximity to Taiwan will see closer coordination between the two.
While the US will probably not want to give up its foothold in the region, despite present reluctance to get involved in foreign conflicts, Taiwan could spread its support base by also moving closer to Japan while continuing to strengthen its ties with the US, which has hitherto been its sheet anchor on security.
China will, naturally, watch all three players — Japan, Taiwan and the US — very closely. While that is expected, given China’s intention to get Taiwan to return to the “motherland’s fold” and its plan to create a larger sphere of influence, it should not put Taiwan off the track of pursuing closer ties with Japan and other neighboring countries.
Manik Mehta is a New York-based journalist with extensive writing experience on foreign affairs, diplomacy, global economics and international trade.
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