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Japan as a normal country

by Doug Bandow

America’s war in Afghanistan is winding down, but conflict elsewhere, including between China and Japan, now looks possible. Tokyo should get serious about its own defense.

After World War II the United States imposed a constitution on occupied Japan that formally forbade possession of a military. But the world is changing.

Imperial Japan is long gone. Most Japanese citizens seem prepared to defend themselves in a dangerous world.

Moreover, America no longer can afford to protect most of the known world from every threat. Despite the so-called “pivot” to Asia, U.S. forces will not remain forever.

Tokyo’s first duty is to protect Japan. Moreover, the Japanese government should promote regional security, cooperating closely with other countries in East Asia.

For years Tokyo’s defense spending only averaged 1 percent of GDP — and has not increased since 2002. Japan doesn’t need a large army, which would worry its neighbors. Most helpful would be missiles and missile defenses, as well as additional air and naval assets.

These issues have taken on new urgency in light of East Asia’s burgeoning territorial disputes. Japan is squabbling with South Korea over the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands and with Russia over the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands. In both cases Tokyo is contesting the status quo. The disputes are bitter, but unlikely to turn violent. More dangerous is Beijing’s challenge to Japanese control over the Senkaku Islands. These five islets have sparked naval clashes, aerial chases, activist flotillas, and domestic protests.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared that the Senkakus are “Japan’s inherent territory” so “There is no room for diplomatic negotiations over this issue.” Indeed, he added, the solution necessitated, “if I may say at the risk of being misunderstood — physical force.”

Alas, Japan would not have an easy time if the two navies engaged. According to Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute:”Tokyo would be forced to turn to the United States for support under the mutual security treaty.”

In 2010, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to take any position on territorial sovereignty, but explained: “we have made it very clear that the islands are part of our mutual treaty obligations, and the obligation to defend Japan.”

In November, then Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto proposed updating the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines to include the Senkakus.

Unfortunately, issuing blank checks for the defense of weaker allies encourages them to behave irresponsibly — like Tokyo, which refuses to negotiate with China on the Senkaku Islands after politicizing the issue by purchasing three of the islands.

Washington should not put Americans at risk to guarantee other nations’ peripheral and contested territorial claims. More broadly, the U.S. should stop treating its allies as helpless dependents. Rather than augmenting American military forces in the Pacific, Washington should begin turning defense responsibilities over to others.

Tokyo is capable of doing more. Abe once criticized the Japanese Constitution for “failing to provide a necessary condition for an independent nation.” He indicated that his government will reconsider the informal 1 percent limit on military spending and may acquire amphibious units, ballistic missiles and strategic bombers.

Such increased military activity “may even cause Beijing to think twice about the cost of pushing its military and economic weight around East and Southeast Asia,” argues John Lee of Sydney University.

Tokyo also needs to forge better working relationships with its neighbors. Historical antagonisms loom large. Abe exacerbated these concerns by contradicting past apologies for Japan’s World War II impressment of “comfort women” to provide sexual services for its soldiers.

Abe, however, has begun to address these concerns. He appointed a special envoy to improve relations with Seoul and took his first overseas trip to Southeast Asia.

Japan’s ultimate objective should be to convince China that it has too many prosperous and nationalistic neighbors with expanding militaries to achieve primacy. The more Beijing asserts itself, the more surrounding states will respond.

Of course, the mere fact that peace is in every country’s interest does not guarantee peace. A nationalistic storm is building throughout the region. But the possibility of conflict is another good reason for the U.S. to stay out.

America has an interest in preventing any nation from dominating Asia, but no power, including China, will be able to do so in the foreseeable future. But the U.S. has no interest in acting as umpire for bitter territorial feuds throughout the region.

As Washington winds down more than a decade of fighting in Central Asia, some analysts would have the U.S. prepare for war in the Pacific. But Americans should reject this invitation for perpetual conflict. Japan and its neighbors should cooperate to counter Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to U.S. President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including “Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World” and coauthor of “The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.”

  • Makoto Genchi

    I can understand your position, Mr. Doug Bandow. As a tax payer, you might be appalled by huge military budget voted every year by the Federal Government, but with all the respect I may owe you, I shall totally disagree with you on this subject.

    In deed, it would be easy for American State to simply “hand the defense responsibilities over back to Japan”, the country that has been refused the mare possibility to have its own national forces for more than half a century! It would be too easy to say, “Go on, you can do it yourself now!” and refuse help when it will be most needed. Not only would such an action betray the international agreement but it will also show to the whole world America`s true double-faced nature. How wicked in deed, not to stand to your promises when the they suit you no more…

    Should you be a man of honor you ought to be ashamed even to think of such an action, leave aside to speak it out loud.

    Makoto Genchi, Phd. in history and international politics

    • Christopher-trier

      You are operating under the mistaken assumption that the United States is a country that honours its commitments and stands behind its allies. What’s closer to the truth is the United States demands constant help from its allies to pursue its interests but is at best inconsistent in aiding its allies when they’re in need. The United States also has a marked tendency to take credit for what others achieved in order to further bolster its national ego.

      As a man who claims to hold a doctorate in history and international politics you should already be well aware of this. The United States professed friendship and good will to the United Kingdom and France but undermined them during the Suez Canal Crisis, an action which effectively ended their ability to act in defence of their own interests without the prior authorisation of the United States. It also bolstered anti-Western factions in the Middle East. Eisenhower quickly regretted it but it was too late. The United States did very little to help the UK when the Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentina. If anything, the US government attempted to pressure the UK into a humiliating peace treaty. The US government has also sheltered IRA terrorists and its government even has supporters of terrorism in high positions! Explore the sordid record of Peter King if you don’t believe me.

      Do you believe that the USA values Japan any more than it does the UK? Do you think that the USA will treat Japan any better than it treats Germany?

      There might be a lot of Americans who genuinely support you but as a whole you’re sadly mistaken. Bandow is at least honest in stating what Japan truly has to expect from its great ally and friend the USA and gives ample warning that it should be prepared to stand alone.

    • JoeMcIntyre

      Don’t be too worried- fellows from the Cato institute are almost exclusively from the “retrenchment” camp in the foreign policy establishment. Their views are generally outside of the mainstream.

      However, it is worth exploring the possibility of Japan normalizing it’s military expenditures. This would allow for greater flexibility on America’s end- one thing we do exceedingly well is logistical and technical support. Freeing up capacity for these activities is exceedingly important given the reality of budgetary constraints, especially down the road.

      Nonetheless, don’t worry too much, America has not forgotten her commitments and will not be abandoning her partners.

      • Christopher-trier

        It has a long history of doing so and has not changed at all.

        US threats to the UK that they do the bidding of the US or become “less relevant”, the de facto support of Argentina by Clinton and Obama, etc.

        Japan would be best served by looking at the true nature of US integrity and keeping it in mind.

  • pervertt

    But Japan is not a normal country. It is an island nation with few natural resources but it also has one of the most productive economies of the developed world. It has remained a largely homogeneous society even in an era of unstoppable globalisation. it is notionally a democracy but unlike western democracies, only one political party has dominated government in the post-war period. It has one of the most effective military forces in Asia even though Article 9 of its own constitution prevents it from doing so.

    So, can Japan do to make it more normal? For starters, it could look to Germany, one of Japan’s Axis partners in WW2. Germany has managed to build up its military without fostering distrust with its former adversaries. It has renounced war and shown a commitment to peaceful development. It has paid reparations to Israel and expressed genuine remorse for past wrongs. It has outlawed the public support of Nazi ideals. It has shouldered more than its fair share of economic burden in bankrolling bankrupt governments in the Euro zone. Through these actions, Germany has shown itself to be a changed nation, capable of taking on a leadership role in post-war Europe. Japan can do likewise.

  • savorywill

    It is important that Japan remains committed to the pursuance of peaceful resolution of all conflicts. As Article 9 clearly states, “The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognised.”

    To me it is ironic that this article was placed in the Japanese constitution following WW2 by the United States, which epitomises honouring, rather than not recognising, the “belligerency of the state”. The wars in Iraq and Vietnam certainly clearly reflect this.

    War just brings destruction and misery. The only thing we learn from it is don’t do it again. We have had enough wars. Japan is in a position to lead by example by honouring Article 9 and demonstrating the resolve to resolve all disputes peacefully.