During the Persian Gulf War, I wrote that “average Americans would think friendlier and more respectful thoughts about Japan if it were able to contribute soldiers — standing side by side with Americans in the sands of Arabia — than if it contributes a billion or more dollars.” Now, Japanese sailors are standing watch in the Indian Ocean, side by side with their American counterparts, supporting the U.S. mission and prepared to defend themselves if necessary.

Does the presence of three Japanese warships in the Indian Ocean mark the beginning of the end for Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, as some argue? Does it mean that we are witnessing the re-emergence of Japanese militarism with its insatiable appetite to dominate the Asia-Pacific region? Hardly. So long as Japanese “self-defense” and U.S. defense are joined in common cause, there is little reason for alarm at the return of Japanese warships to the world’s oceans.

Unlike the ambitions of the British Empire in the 19th century and the Soviet Empire in the 20th century, the United States will not be defeated in Afghanistan because its aims are defined and limited and because it seeks no territorial objectives.

It is a matter of regimes. Although America has had bursts of imperial arrogance from time to time, beginning in the late 19th century, on the whole the Pax Americana has rejected the annexation or long-term occupation of territory. The return of Okinawa to Japan, the canal to Panama and the general attitude of America in the postwar years with regard to Europe and Japan are examples of this point.

Haya de la Torre, the famous Peruvian political theorist and leftwing activist, once said that the difference between the U.S. and the Soviet Union is that when you ask the U.S. to go home, it leaves. America is at heart an isolationist nation, compelled by necessity to play a global role.

It is popular today for critics to charge that the U.S. has a “unilateralist” foreign policy. This criticism comes largely from Europe, in good measure motivated by concern over America’s perceived tilt toward Asia. On a more fundamental level, however, when critics accuse the U.S. of going it alone in world affairs, they confuse unilateralism with isolationism. On the whole, the American people don’t want “entangling alliances” and international commitments, and the American Congress — reflecting the attitude of the American people — notoriously drags its feet when it has to deal with these kinds of measures. Americans are homebodies until seriously provoked.

And this relates to the question of Japanese naval forces operating on the high seas far away from Japan’s territorial waters. Rather than denying Article 9, the present arrangement reaffirms it. So long as Japanese military forces act in concert with the limited objectives of American military deployment, the world has nothing to fear from a rearmed Japan, from a Japanese military profile that engages increasingly in international responsibilities.

The Japanese people have serious and significant decisions awaiting them, such as whether Japan’s Defense Agency should become a fully developed ministry and whether the Japanese government should be entrusted with expanded war powers. These issues will continue to alarm Japan’s Asian neighbors.

Whatever their outcome, the strongest guarantee against renewed Japanese militarism is a clear and unwavering policy that Japanese military forces will only be deployed outside of Japan’s territorial waters for limited purposes, the assurance for which is that they will only be deployed in concert with the U.S. and/or with multilateral efforts, such as those sanctioned by the United Nations. In a changing world where necessity dictates new realities, this is the kind of security that will reassure Japan’s citizens and neighbors that Japan continues to honor Article 9 of its Constitution.

What troubles the leaders of the Asia Pacific world more than Japan’s recent deployment or debate over a new ministry is Japan’s refusal to make a clean break with its troubling World War II past. Put these concerns to rest and the general suspicion that follows Japan, including the deployment of its naval forces, will disappear.

If, however, Japan should continue to send mixed signals to the world about its World War II record and if, at the same time, it should undertake military operations on its own, then Japan will face not just suspicion, but the combined wrath of the entire Asia-Pacific community, including that of the U.S.

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