The Abe government is strong-arming through the Japanese Diet revisions to the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) Law that, according to all objective analysts, are unconstitutional, violating Article 9 of Japan’s “Peace Constitution.” The amendments will permit SDF forces to join in “collective self-defense” battles in support of American forces, in places as distant as the South China Seas and the Straits of Hormuz, even when no direct threat to Japan exits.
Last week, the Diet’s Upper House passed legislation lower the minimum voting age for Japanese from 20 to 18. By this act, Japanese politics will gain some 2.4 million new potential voters, all eligible to vote in next summer’s important upper House of Councilors elections.
Abe’s conservative/nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), now seeking to ally with the similarly nationalistic Osaka-based Japan Restoration Party led by Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru, hope to enlist these new voters to elect to the Upper House delegates who will support Abe’s proposal to revise the constitution to, most importantly, remove Article 9‘s prohibitions on maintaining armies and making war.
It is undoubtedly true that Abe’s LDP and other parties aiming to revise the constitution have conducted polls and otherwise discerned that younger voters will be more inclined to support revision than has been true among voters to date.
Constitutional constraints on Japan’s military have been a central determinate in how the U.S.-Japan alliance has been structured and operated since the 1950s. It is said that General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) in Japan, began to have second thoughts about the wisdom of Article 9 very soon after it came into force on May 3, 1947.
For many years the U.S. Pentagon—long the main Washington player and driver in U.S.-Japan relations, if not in U.S. policy toward Asia as a whole—has been pushing Japan to loosen self-imposed restrictions on SDF structures, roles, and doctrines.
Abe, whose audacity was observed last July by in brazenly and autocratically (ostensibly through a unanimous Cabinet decision) “reinterpreting” Article 9 to allow the exercise of collective self-defense, is the Pentagon’s “best hope”—probably forever—of integrating Japan forces into a U.S.-led alliance.
Of course, Japan-China political and military tensions, and specifically the Senkaku/Diaoyu island territorial dispute, have been much in the background—if not in the forefront—providing explicit justification for Abe’s plans. They are also what, given the U.S.-Japan alliance, could pull the United States into armed conflict with China.
It is evident that U.S.-Japan relations, particularly military-security relations, are inseparable from U.S.-China relations. In turn, Japan-China relations, even short of conflict, powerfully effect U.S. relations with each. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of U.S. national security policy toward Asia that does not place Japan-China relations—and the dangers attendant thereto—in a vital center, fulcrum-like position.
This perspective brings us to the chapter in U.S. Naval War College assistant professor Lyle J. Goldstein’s book, Meeting China Halfway—How to Defuse the Emerging U.S.-China Rivalry entitled “Keystone.” What Goldstein has to say here is profoundly important. A few quotes:
“…the divisive issues between Tokyo and Beijing are to a large extent ‘imagined.’ For Japan, the major concerns are not generally related to current Chinese policies. Rather, Tokyo frets about an immensely powerful, militaristic, and nationalistic China that could hypothetically emerge at some point …to threaten Japan’s sea lanes and other vital interests…. Beijing is also ‘shadow-boxing’….
“What is remarkable to consider regarding China-Japan relations is how a number of comparatively simple steps, often of a merely symbolic character, could radically improve the situation and thus yield massive economic and security gains.
“…Washington has a major role to play in this process…[having] been altogether too passive in observing the growing chasm between China and Japan….”
What are the steps Goldstein would counsel to begin a “cooperation spiral” in the “China-Japan-U.S. triangle”? I list them below and will elaborate and comment in future posts:
Washington’s move #1: The U.S. should endeavor to decrease the U.S. military presence on Okinawa.
Beijing’s move #1: China should begin to participate in a trilateral summit process with both the U.S. and Japan.
Washington’s move #2: The U.S. should encourage Japan and China to cooperate in the anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.
Beijing’s move #2: China must agree not to leverage its commercial advantage in the rare earth minerals against Japan for political reasons.
Washington’s move #3: Washington must push Tokyo to prompt a breakthrough on the ‘history issue’ with a prime minister’s visit to Nanjing and the initiation of negotiations on reparations.
Beijing’s move #3: China must reign in nationalists on the East China Sea issue, agreeing to the ‘equidistance’ principle overall.
Washington’s move #4: The U.S. must encourage Japan to accept ‘joint jurisdiction’ regarding the Diaoyu/Senkaku islet dispute.
Beijing’s move #4: Beijing should acquiesce to constitutional revision in Japan regarding the role of the Japanese armed forces.
Washington’s move #5: The U.S. must move to restructure the U.S.-Japan Alliance, decreasing its salience in recognition of the security dilemma.
Beijing’s move #5: China must endorse a permanent seat for Japan on the United Nations Security Council.
How far will Goldstein’s five reciprocal steps really ameliorate Japan-China tensions while reducing risks and advancing relations with China for the United States? There is plenty to consider and debate here.
What seems to me most problematic–indeed, likely to exacerbate rather than resolve problems–is decreasing the “salience” of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
I do not see a sustainable, long-term path to China-Japan and greater East Asia geopolitical stability that does not demand terminating the U.S.-Japan alliance and shuttering U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea.