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Abe move triggers rethink of military’s role

Stronger stance on defense seen by some as path to war

by Noriyuki Suzuki

Kyodo

For university student Yui Iwamuro, the U.S. Camp Zama near Tokyo is the closest she has gotten to anything military. She’s one of many young students and adults who consider war, or the prospect of Japan going to war, as something distant, improbable and unrealistic in the 21st century.

But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s move toward expanding the role of Japan’s armed forces has caused her to think again about Japan’s postwar history and pacifist Constitution, which has defined its security posture with a heavy U.S. military presence.

“I’ve no idea what it means to exercise the right to collective self-defense, but my feeling is something is changing so I need to know what it is that’s changing,” she said before the Cabinet approved a constitutional reinterpretation on July 1, in what is widely seen as a major policy change.

Alarmed by the speed at which Japan is moving ahead with the remodeling of its security policy, she is now trying to discover what “the right to collective self-defense” means for herself and Japan.

Abe has said that what he aims to do is not to wage war, or allow the Self-Defense Forces to be sent overseas for combat, but to bolster deterrence to deal with security threats.

That deterrence, Abe said, can be obtained by strengthening the U.S.-Japan security alliance — an arrangement that has enabled Japan to adopt an “exclusively defense-oriented policy” under the war-renouncing Constitution.

Judgment of history

Over the years, the presence of U.S. military bases and facilities has continued to serve as a reminder of World War II, but also a symbol of the postwar pacifism that has kept Japan away from collective self-defense.

“I’m confident that history will say our judgment (on collective self-defense) was right,” Abe said Monday during a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee.

While trying to make the SDF a more equal partner with foreign militaries, the Abe administration has made it a priority to ease the burden on Okinawa Prefecture of hosting the bulk of U.S. military bases in Japan. Tokyo is seeking to complete the long-stalled relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the prefecture.

On Tuesday, the U.S. military started transferring its KC-130 aerial refueling tankers from Okinawa to the Marine Corps’ Iwakuni air base in Yamaguchi Prefecture, located about 300 kilometers away from South Korea’s Busan and considered strategically vital due to its proximity to the Korean Peninsula.

Coupled with the U.S. “pivot” toward Asia, the base, which has traditionally been shared by the U.S. Marines and the Maritime Self-Defense Force, is set to become one of the biggest U.S. Marine facilities in Northeast Asia.

Sharing the burden

Local residents who have a military base near their houses say Okinawa’s burden needs to be reduced. They also worry about whether the military presence in their communities will increase in the years ahead, as Abe pushes for collective self-defense.

“Iwakuni continues to be the alternative site to Okinawa in terms of burden-sharing,” said Jungen Tamura, a city assembly member in Iwakuni. “If Japan is going to use collective self-defense, Iwakuni will likely take on greater importance as a hub.”

Under the terms of a 1996 bilateral agreement to relocate the Futenma base and transfer the refueling tankers, Iwakuni is now expected to have 15 KC-130s by the end of August. A total of 59 carrier-based aircraft will also move to Iwakuni from the U.S. Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Kanagawa by around 2017.

The best defense

Japan is also bolstering its own defense capabilities. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Tokyo may purchase additional F-35 stealth fighter jets on top of 42 already planned. The central government is also considering buying MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft, whose repeated accidents and crashes overseas have raised safety concerns.

“It’s essential for Japan to bolster its defense capabilities, especially increasing the effectiveness of the Japan-U.S. security regime, and improving the deterrence of the alliance,” Onodera said on Friday, following talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Washington.

Such urgency is not necessarily shared by all Japanese, especially those who see the term “the right to collective self-defense” as synonymous with war. Government officials say more clarification may be needed.

Iwamuro, a 19-year-old sophomore, thinks Japan should prioritize diplomacy without resorting to force based on Article 9, which has become a part of the national identity in the postwar era. But some experts see those in their 20s and 30s as more “responsive” to emerging security threats than the older generation, which has vivid memories of World War II.

North Korea’s repeated missile launches in recent weeks, a nationalistic bent in South Korea, and an increasingly assertive China at sea and in the skies could give such young students a justification for supporting Abe’s push for the overhaul, according to some experts.

“Young people are often described as turning more patriotic, conservative, or tilting to the right, but the story is different. I don’t think that is the case,” said Hiroshi Hirano, a professor of political psychology at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. “They are responding to the emergence of threats and feeling the need to protect themselves, but I’m not so sure if it is to protect their country per se.”

The real work has just begun to change Japan’s security architecture, with the pacifist credo under Article 9 weighed against the need for a stronger Japan.

Kenji Isezaki, a professor specializing in peace-building and conflict prevention at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, says the SDF takes pride in their “complementary” role to the U.S. military within the limits of Article 9.

“If we are to maintain the bilateral deterrence, we need to think about Okinawa,” Isezaki told university students at a gathering in late June.

“I’m sure Japan and the United States can negotiate and change the status of forces agreement (on U.S. military operations), because doing that will help reduce the psychological burden on the people of Okinawa,” Isezaki added.