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Foreign Policy

Japan’s Lost Opportunity For Neutrality? Perhaps Not.

May 06 , 2015

Was there ever a choice for Japan to reject the Obama administration’s alliance strategy toward China? Yes, there was. Will there, after Prime Minister Abe Shinzo leaves the scene, be another chance to reject this path? There is hope.

Abe’s state visit to Washington, and, especially, the revision of the U.S.-Japan mutual defense cooperation “guidelines,” have made Japan a “full partner” in the U.S.-Japan alliance–the “cornerstone” of the Obama Pentagon’s “pivot to Asia” strategy–with China being the main presumed threat and potential enemy.

The new “guidelines” greatly expand roles for Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF), within Asia and globally, operating in “seamless” coordination with American forces, and effectively putting Japan’s SDF under U.S. command in many scenarios, upon which deployments and joint exercises will follow. Particularly provocative toward China is the SDF’s entry into surveillance and patrolling in the South China Sea.

Former Japanese diplomat Amaki Naoto writes in his mail magazine that the Pentagon has for decades been pushing Tokyo to enhance “interoperability” with U.S. forces and to expand the scope of SDF operations beyond Japan. This time, however, the impetus for the quantum expansions informing the new “guidelines” came as much from Abe’s government as from the U.S. side.

Amaki writes that the Abe government’s single-minded pursuit of a more “normal” SDF posture, beginning with the doctrine of “collective self defense” approved by a Cabinet decision (rather than a vote in the Diet) last July, has been received like a “lifeboat” by the Pentagon, laboring under budget constraints to implement its “rebalance to Asia” strategy.

Amaki points out that the new “guidelines” envisage that Japanese forces will take over front line roles previously assigned to American forces. For all its bravado enthusiasm (and bureaucratic inertia) for the “rebalance,” suggests Amaki, the Pentagon knows how disastrously costly a conflict with China would be, and is seeking to minimize its potential losses.

Hence, for a renewed commitment of the United States to defend Japan, the Abe government has provide the quid pro quo that Japanese forces would be sacrificed before American.

A further quid pro quo has been the Abe government’s determination to ignore the will of the people of Okinawa by pressing forward with the building of a massive new American base at Henoko, ostensibly a replacement for the Futenma U.S. Marine Station. In reality the new base will hugely expanded, upgraded, and available for use by all U.S. branches, effectively and symbolically representing a permanent American military presence.

Abe’s next target, after pushing amendments to the Self Defense Forces Law through the Diet this year, will be a last ditch effort to amend Japan’s Constitution—with the main target Article 9—following the upper Diet house elections next July. This is despite public opinion polls showing increasing majority public opposition to Constitutional revision. A poll by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun taken on May 3, Japan’s Constitution Day, shows that more people oppose revision (44%) than support it (42%). As Abe’s intentions have become clearer, opposition to revision, especially of Article 9, has been strengthening.

That the Abe government is in large measure defying the wishes of a majority of Japanese, but—in a period of opposition party disarray—still succeeding is particularly alarming.

The portentous direction we now observe in Japan’s foreign and defense policies under Abe was not inevitable. Indeed, only some six years ago, Japan seemed ready to take a different path—one that promised more harmonious relations with China and Korea and could have begun to reposition Japan as a “neutral” between China and the United States.

In 1996 three bold and visionary Japanese politicians, Hatoyama Yukio, Kan Naota, and Ozawa Ichiro founded the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). On August 30, 2009 the DPJ, with Hatoyama as general secretary, won an historic election, ending the virtually unbroken 50 year reign by the conservative/U.S. alliance-oriented Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)—Abe’s party.

Hatoyama and his DPJ leadership colleagues—most importantly Ozawa—achieved electoral victory advocating a reorientation of Japan’s foreign relations from subordination and absolute fealty to the United States to a developing an “autonomous” foreign policy and balance between relations with the U.S. and those with Japan’s Asian neighbors, particularly China and South Korea.

A symbolic and well as practical expression of Hatoyama’s vision was his opposition to “relocation” of the Futenma base within Okinawa. Indeed, his message was that this base should be closed and not rebuilt anywhere in Japan. The clear implication was that Japan—for its own strategic interests—should begin reducing the U.S. military presence in Japan, and possibly eventually ending the alliance.

Hatoyama’s tenure as prime minister, from September 16, 2009 to his resignation on June 2, 2010 was fraught with scandal and opposition party intrigues. Insiders and scholars have documented that many intrigues aimed at undermining Hatoyama were being backed, if not orchestrated, by the Obama White House, Clinton State Department, the Pentagon and their overwhelmingly powerful media, academic, research, and bureaucratic interests in the U.S. and Japan.

It became clear to everyone that the United States was not going to allow Japan to take the independent and more Asian-oriented path that Japan’s voters had endorsed.

Since 2012 Abe has not just restored the status quo anteof 2009. His project has been the building of the military/intelligence capabilities of a “normal country,” indeed, of a regional and international military power. His timing has been auspicious, occurring simultaneously with the Obama administration with America’s “rebalance,” the publicly avowed purpose of which is to maintain unchallengeable American military power primacy in Asia and to “contain” China.

Is there any way for persons desiring harmonious Asian relations, especially Japan-China relations, as well as U.S.-China relations, to view the current state of affairs positively, or with any hope of improvement?

There is at least one. It is that, paradoxically, Abe’s expansion of Japan’s military capabilities–even within the new “guidelines”–could allow later American administrations, realizing that U.S. strategic interest demand non-confrontational relations with China, to conclude that Japan does need or warrant defense by the United States.

At that time, perhaps, a political movement like that of the DPJ in 2009, attending the will of the people, will begin—with U.S. acquiescence, or, indeed, encouragement—to chart the course that for Japan is the most natural, correct, and desired–the course of a neutral, peace-loving Asian Switzerland.

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