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At last, Japan stands up

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to extend the Diet’s current session for 95 days, until Sept. 27 — making for the longest continuous session in the Diet’s postwar history. The reason is clear: Abe is determined to pass a set of national security bills allowing a reinterpretation of Japan’s Constitution that enables the country to play a greater role not only in enhancing its own security, but also in advancing world peace.

Abe’s actions in the Diet come on the heels of his performance at the recent Group of Seven summit in Germany, where he broke with Japanese tradition. For the previous 39 years, Japanese representatives to the G-7 had focused on the economic discussions at such meetings, content to remain largely silent as the industrialized world’s other leaders surveyed the planet’s political hot spots and recommended action or, more often, inaction.

But the summit showed that Japan no longer intends to stand on the diplomatic sidelines. On the two foreign-policy issues that dominated the agenda, Abe was a forceful participant, advocating a muscular response to Russia’s encroachment on Ukraine’s sovereignty — indeed, Abe visited Kiev before the summit — and supporting efforts to roll back the Islamic State.

Abe’s interventions at the G-7, and his determination to create a legal framework for a more proactive security strategy, are proof that Japan, at long last, is constructing a foreign policy — a Weltpolitik — that reflects not only the global weight of its economy, but also the impact of faraway events on its national security.

This foreign-policy assertiveness is as revolutionary for Japan’s diplomacy as “Abenomics” has been for its economic policy. It marks a stark contrast with the seven decades following Japan’s defeat in 1945 in the Pacific War, when successive governments mostly outsourced foreign policy to the United States.

Until the 1980s, this made sense. By concentrating on reconstructing the country after the devastation of war, our leaders brought about an economic miracle. Japan became the world’s second-ranking industrial power, and almost all Japanese enjoyed lifestyles and levels of social security that their parents could never have imagined.

Of course, there were jolts along the way. In fact, the two greatest were administered by the U.S. First came U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to meet Chinese leader Mao Zedong to prepare U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China; then came the so-called Nixon Shock — the decision just a short time later to end the dollar’s direct convertibility to gold (a pillar of the post-war international monetary system created at Bretton Woods in 1944). The opening to China and the Nixon Shock confirmed the position of those in Japan who knew that the country could not remain on permanent sabbatical from its foreign-policy role and responsibilities.

Because successive Japanese governments badly underestimated its consequences, the rise of China has been the third and final shock to Japan’s policy of neo-isolationism. Over much of the past three decades, Japanese firms and official agencies have happily invested hundreds of billions of dollars in China, hoping to bind the two economies together in a way that would end the lingering bitterness from World War II.

Instead, as the friction of recent years has amply attested, China continues to nurture the bitterness of its people, and those of other Asian countries, toward Japan. Its hope is to rule out any Japanese role in resolving regional security issues, and to diminish the potency of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

But it is not only China that has reawakened Japan’s foreign-policy ambitions. Russia was a concern for Japan even before President Vladimir Putin unleashed his armed forces on Ukraine. The Kremlin has maintained Russia’s illegal occupation of Japanese islands — our “Northern Territories” — seized by Joseph Stalin after Japan’s surrender in the Pacific War.

In the decades since, both the Soviet government and the Russian government of President Boris Yeltsin periodically engaged in diplomatic efforts to end their country’s estrangement from Japan. But under Putin, Russia no longer makes even a pretense of talking. Indeed, for the first time since the islands’ seizure, Russian leaders have actually visited them, reinforcing Russia’s spurious sovereignty claim.

Given Chinese and Russian actions, it should surprise no one that Japan has fundamentally rethought its diplomatic posture. And now the world is witnessing the results, not only in Abe’s reinterpretation of Japan’s Constitution to allow for greater military support of the country’s allies, but also in the reinvigorated mutual-defense pact that Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama signed in Washington in late April.

At the same time, Japan is moving out of America’s diplomatic shadow. A strategic partnership with India has been gaining strength since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office last year, and Abe has been deepening Japan’s strategic ties around Southeast Asia, particularly with countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, which are confronting China’s hegemonic ambitions in the South China Sea.

Japan’s engagement with the world’s most vexing problems goes beyond Asia. The country was the first of the world’s leading economies to provide financial assistance to Ukraine after Putin’s placeman, President Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted last year. And it is beefing up its relations with emerging giants like Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, and Turkey.

These initiatives reflect Japan’s recognition that the global framework that has kept the peace, and created opportunities for prosperity, for ever more countries — including China — is under threat. Japan and like-minded countries must actively defend it. The positions that Abe staked out in Germany represent an important step in that direction.

Yuriko Koike, a former defense minister and national security adviser, is a member of the Lower House. © 2015 Project Syndicate

  • Kautilya

    A Japan, completely outside America’s diplomatic shadow, would form a very solid strategic partnership with India. It is in Asia’s larger interest, that any American involvement in Asia-Pacific be driven by Japan and India; akin to grabbing America under its arms and getting it to do their bidding or have it leave the arena. American leadership in Asia-Pacific, given its long history of single-mindedly pursuing its narrow national interests; coupled with its significant commercial interests in China, simply cannot be trusted to be in larger Asian interests.

  • Richard Solomon

    This piece fails to note some important facts. First, if Abe/Japan is to step up to play a more active diplomatic role in the world it had better be ready to cope with the consequences of doing so.

    Eg, coming out with stronger positions on the Middle East could well lead to terrorist attacks on Japanese diplomats and/or even in the homeland. Is Abe and the country ready for these things?

    Criticizing Russia for its role in the Ukraine may be ‘the correct thing to do.’ But it will probably mean that there is no hope for Japan ever getting back its so called ‘northern territories.’

    Second, the writer fails to note that the resentments of Chinese and other Asians towards Japan are at least understandable, if not justly deserved. Japan has done little real, concrete things to make amends for the atrocities it committed during WW II to the people of Asia. ‘Sincere’ apologies not backed up by actual amends ring hollow. Abe’s resistance to really DO things to restore relations with the people of his neighbors serves to fuel the resentments expressed towards Japan.

    As a former defense minister, this writer appears to be offering poorly thought out cheering for Abe rather than real, albeit critical advice.

    • dotherighthing

      “Criticizing Russia for its role in the Ukraine may be ‘the correct thing to do.’ But it will probably mean that there is no hope for Japan ever getting back its so called ‘northern territories.'”

      More likely Japan came to the (correct) conclusion that there is indeed no hope for Japan getting back its northern territories while Putin is in charge, so there is nothing to lose by criticizing Russia.

    • Clickonthewhatnow

      In regards to Japan doing “little real, concrete things” to make amends, they have made real apologies and paid reparations. Of course, Abe and other politicians say things to undermine all that, but I think one last apology and a promise from Japanese politicians to never talk about WWII again would be good enough. It’s not like it is in China’s best interest is to never bring up Japan’s past. It is a convenient way to divert the peoples’ attention from the horrible human rights issues they are causing today.

  • tiger

    Interesting choice of words – Pacific War. If this is an essay from someone high up in Japan’s politics – It will be interesting to see how Japan will be able to ‘stand up’ in world’s diplomatic relations.

  • Liars N. Fools

    “At last, Japan stands up” …. Alas, under Abe Shinzo it seems to be standing up still under the tutelage of the Americans, assuming that the Diet will complete the collective security legislation to fulfill Abe’s promise to the Americans regarding the “new security guidelines.”

    American military forces are stressed and stretched, and they would be more than happy for Japan to end what I call the “full fare, free ride” — full fare because Japan does so much in burden sharing to keep the American military based in Japan (especially helpful with the large concentrations in Okinawa which is populated by people who are regarded by many main islands Japanese as being not quite Japanese) and free ride, as Koike suggests, by outsourcing the diplomacy AND the security policy to America. If Abe gets his way, soon Japanese “boots on the ground and on decks and butts in cockpit seats” will be available to complement the Americans.

    So, if Abe gets his way, Japan will stand up. Alas, it will still be at least a foot shorter than its American senior partner.

  • Steve van Dresser

    With all the emphasis on gaining the power to be able to rally to America’s side in case of military action, I am led to ask, Which of America’s military adventures of the past 50 years do these Japanese leaders wish they had been able to participate in? The intervention in Vietnam? The invasion of Afghanistan? The overthrow of the last stable government in Iraq? The invasion of Grenada or Panama?

    Are Japanese officials waiting for another bogus “Gulf of Tonkin” incident or the bogus threat of “weapons of mass destruction” to justify going to war.on behalf of Americans under attack?

    Recent American history has been filled with stupid military actions based on fraudulent assertions of being under attack or threat of attack. The Japanese would be much better off sticking with their war renouncing constitution.

    • Clickonthewhatnow

      I would agree with them going on this path IF the goal was at some point making the country free of U.S. bases down the line. I don’t see this happening as long as the U.S. wants to keep tabs on Asia, though, so this change is ridiculous. So many countries would love to have the relative anonymity that Japan has from IS, and Japan is not ready for terrorist attacks.

  • WilliamCToliver

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  • Rebane

    In the wake of Mr. Abe’s favorite Hyakuta’s blunder, Ms Koike’s ill-timed fanfare sounds as hollow as hollow can be.