Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent decision to partially allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense is surely an important one for the future of Japan. However, some of the commentaries voiced so far on the decision — both at home and abroad — do not necessarily reflect its true significance when seen from the perspective of diplomatic history.
The post-Cold War world has turned significantly unstable as the result of the failed response to the terrorist attacks carried out against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. The U.S. has fought so many futile wars since then, making Americans very war-weary.
Added to that is another uncertainty — the rapid military rise of China and its increasing assertiveness in its external relations with regional neighbors. The world has yet to think through how to respond to this in the long run, while the attraction of China’s huge economic potential remains strong.
Much will surely depend on China’s future stance, but there is no denying that the world is unstable today and that such instability is salient in Asia and in the Middle East.
The situation in which Japan finds itself today closely resembles that of Britain on the eve of World War II, in that its overseas economic interests would not be secure without maintaining its strong alliance with the U.S.
In the 1940s, Britain’s attempt to safeguard its interests came to no avail, as the Axis nations, including Imperial Japan, trying to undermine the status quo, chose the course of war.
In order to dispel the dark clouds of instability, it was a rational choice for Britain at the time to try to fend off the destabilizing forces bent on breaking down the status quo by continuing to align itself with the U.S. and all its military might.
Today many Japanese have come to realize that it is no longer possible for Japan to maintain its vast interdependence with the rest of the world by simply depending on the benevolence of other nations.
Like Britain in the 1940s, it is in Japan’s interest, as a nation in favor of the status quo, to align itself more closely with the U.S. Most of Japan’s military activities to be permitted under the latest government decision are for the purpose of safeguarding the security of Japan and the Japanese people through strengthening the deterrence under the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Some Japanese media have been prone to utopian pacifism, often sounding doctrinaire and unduly critical of Japan’s own actions, even masochistically so. They vociferously argue that the latest decision by the Abe government is intended to enable Japan to fight wars and has increased anxiety in Asia.
Similar commentaries are seen in the Western media, probably influenced by these alarmist voices in Japan. Such an assessment is grossly unbalanced and insufficiently argued out as it fails to see a crucial factor in the East Asian politico-military world.
The missing factor is who possesses nuclear weapons in this region. China’s nuclear arsenal in fact could destroy Japan many times over, while Japan is an avowedly nonnuclear-weapon state whose power-projection capability is extremely limited.
Under these circumstances, the use of military power by Japan is subject to nearly absolute limits, unlike that of nuclear powers. This absolute limitation would remain unchanged even if Japan became a “normal” country.
The record of Japan’s postwar diplomacy based on international cooperation leaves no doubt whatsoever that Japan has steadfastly stood for the maintenance of the status quo in East Asia, neither seeking any gain through military adventurism nor possessing the capability for it. It is inconceivable that Japan would take on nuclear-armed China, counting on the American nuclear umbrella. Nor does Japan harbor any military ambitions on the Korean Peninsula or in Southeast Asia.
Based on their own tragic experiences, the Japanese people are firmly convinced that nuclear weapons are catastrophically destructive and should never be used.
I am convinced that, in view of the deeply ingrained anti-nuclear sentiment and pacifism on the part of its people, Japan, an island nation that is geographically vulnerable to nuclear attacks, will never change its basic policy of ruling out the nuclear option for itself — even if U.S. power was drastically marginalized and the world turned into a lawless jungle.
Given this assumption, the significance of the latest changes in Japan’s defense policy is very limited in scope. Certainly it should give no cause for alarm to those countries that have no intention of attacking Japan or the U.S.
Joining the Foreign Ministry in 1958 after receiving a master’s degree in politics from Keio University, Masamichi Hanabusa held a variety of overseas posts during his 40 years of service, including ambassador to Italy from 1993 to 1997. He is currently chairman emeritus of the English-Speaking Union of Japan.