Japan is regaining lost military muscle – and the US needs it

Japan and the US are taking no chances. EPA

After years spent delicately staying out of military disputes around the world, Japan is suddenly reasserting itself as a serious player in regional and international disputes – and America is ushering it along.

And while circumstances in Japan’s neighbourhood mean that the country needs to show more muscle, there’s an inescapable irony in seeing these two countries holding hands militarily.

After World War II, Japan renounced war and outlawed the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes in Article 9 of its constitution. This set the stage for decades of explosive economic development on the home front.

Japan spent the postwar decades transitioning from military to economic power, with the US sheltering it under the Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security that the two countries signed in 1960.

But now, with the Asia-Pacific region under intense pressure from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the US-Japan alliance is reverting back to a more muscular and defensive posture.

Things hit a peak in April 2015, when President Obama reminded the Asia-Pacific – specifically the PRC – that the US and Japan’s mutual security treaty covers Japanese’s maritime disputes in the East China Sea. Therefore, America will defend the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited archipelago at the heart of a long-running territorial dispute with the PRC.

And now, America is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Japan as the latter steps up both regionally and internationally, transforming back into the sort of power it had apparently decided never to be again.

Revival

In July 2014, Japanese PM Shinzō Abe and his cabinet approved a reinterpretation of Article 9, which granted the nation the right of collective self-defence.

Although Japan is the second largest financial contributor to the United Nations and has been sending troops on UN peacekeeping missions since 1992, Article 9 has always limited Japan’s direct participation from any possible combat missions. Now the grey area is gone, and no misgivings have been raised by the US.

Shinzō Abe meets the head of US naval operations. EPA/Issei Kato

Seven months after the shift, Abe took a strong stand against Islamic State, calling for revenge after the capture and killing of two Japanese hostages. Such a bold statement is rare coming from Japan – and combined with the reinterpretation of Article 9, it suggests at the very least that Japan will engage in future peacekeeping missions in a more involved way that possibly participate in combat operations, especially if Islamic State is the target.

With this new assertiveness, Japan is starting to regain the status as a “normal” state. And this is shaking up the Asia-Pacific balance of power in a big way.

Stand-off

Besides the backup it gets from America, Japan’s new foreign policy posture enjoys substantial internal support. Abe’s programme of “Abenomics” has actually made a pretty good job of bringing Japan’s stagnant economy back to its feet, and that was the main reason his administration was re-elected last year.

Whether Abe took a strong stance on foreign policy was not a main consideration when the Japanese voted. But as Abe’s domestic legitimacy improves, he and his cabinet are getting more licence to engage in international affairs and regional maritime disputes, and responding to the PRC’s maritime belligerence with a strikingly belligerent tone.

Even though the PRC is testing the red lines of maritime disputes with oil drilling in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, various vessel collisions near the Senkakus and its recent land-reclamation work around reefs in the South China Sea, the party-state has backed off or at least stopped escalating hostilities when it has pursued these aggressive actions.

Clearly, Beijing is not yet prepared to trigger full-scale hostilities with even relatively weak states like Vietnam, never mind an ever more muscular Japan. But if the party-state continues with its red line tests, and the maritime disputes it insists on inflaming could blow the fuse on the region’s fragile stability. After all, nearly every state in the Asia-Pacific has at least one maritime dispute with its neighbours rumbling away.

Yet America chooses to engage with Japan to a level that could possibly upset Washington’s other alliances across East Asia. The growing US-Japanese alliance is clearly intended to counterweight the PRC, and to shift the volatile balance of power in the region in ways we cannot foresee.

But one thing’s for sure: the land of the rising sun is rising again.

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