The past weeks have witnessed new alarms about Japanese rearmament—notably the launch of the helicopter/aircraft carrier Izumo—and the right-wing Abe/Aso government’s continued determination, despite popular unease and resistance to revise Japan’s “Peace Constitution.” Meanwhile, fanning further concern, Abe coldly omitted a ritual apology for Japanese aggression when commemorating the end of WWII. But these alarms are misplaced.
The real danger and source of instability in East Asia is the one highlighted by Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan during the press conference with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel following their three hour meeting at the Pentagon in Washington on August 19.
The increasingly dangerous source of instability is the post-WWII order of unchallengeable U.S. military primacy and hegemony in East Asia, the foundation of which is forward U.S. military bases and forces in Japan under the U.S.-Japan “alliance.” The instability and danger has been compounded since 2010 by the Obama administration’s proposed military “pivot”—euphemistically now termed “rebalance—layering on even greater offensive forces, including, now that Abe is available to push it through, a potentially expanded “collective security” role for Japan’s military.
Looking at the U.S. Air Force, Marine, Army, and Navy bases and approximately 70,000 uniformed personnel in Japan and South Korea, and the U.S. Seventh Fleet based in Yokosuka, Japan, no one could reasonably suggest that U.S. power in East Asia is deficient. Rather, backed by U.S. bases and forces in Guam, Hawaii, Alaska, and the continental United States, with 11 aircraft carriers worldwide, with six deployable to Asia, and with long-range offensive strategies like the “Air-Sea Battle” specifically aimed at China a not to mention strategic intercontinental nuclear weapons strike capabilities, U.S. power is overwhelming.
At the press conference General Chang said: “We Chinese are peace loving. We hope the United States’ Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy will not be aimed at China and will not seek to ‘weaken’ China.” Chang continued that ‘balance’ should be multifaceted and involve all countries. “The essential element of rebalancing should be ‘balance;’ if the result is unbalance, then result will be the opposite of what was intended.”
This is precisely the reality and the danger—not just with the “pivot” or “rebalance,” but with the entire U.S. military presence and alliance system in Asia. It is structurally and by design “unbalanced” against and threatening to China’s legitimate security concerns and interests. To mention only one: uninterrupted navigation in the sea lanes that supply vital resources to China. The “pivot” is being justified by inter alia China’s buildup of a blue water navy. But how else should we reasonably expect China to protect vital sea lanes?
Supporters of the U.S. alliance system in East Asia say China can continue to rely on the U.S. to perform this role, as have Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Imagine a reversal of roles and U.S. tolerance for putting China in command of protecting U.S. sea lanes.
China will be as responsible in maintaining free passage in international waters as the U.S. However, as the world’s second largest economy, China should not and will not risk out-sourcing this responsibility to the U.S., especially when the U.S. policy is to maintain regional military primacy that could be turned against China.
When General Chang stated that “balance” should involve all countries, he was including not just China and the U.S., but also, indeed particularly, Japan. Stability in East Asia will result when such a “balance” is attained. The present U.S.-Japan security “alliance” is by design “unbalanced”—intended to support the U.S. regional military superiority and, in exchange, offering a U.S. security guarantee to Japan.
The way toward real “balance” in East Asia must be abrogation of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty and withdrawal of U.S. bases from Japan. With Japan then independent, “balance” would not only allow but require that Japan maintain a credible (non-nuclear) self-defense capability.
This is why alarms over the launching of the Izumo are misplaced. It is reasonable and not destabilizing that Japan deploy a vessel like the Izumo as long as we are assured that it will be used in Japan’s self-defense and not allied with the U.S. in actions against third parties where Japan’s vital interests are not being threatened.
This is the danger in Abe’s campaign to reinterpret Japan’s constitution to allow Japan’s military to integrate with U.S. forces in “collective security” operations—something the U.S. Department of Defense has sought and included in its “rebalancing” strategy. Being induced into “collective security” operations under the U.S.-Japan alliance is the opposite of where Japan should be heading in order to achieve the real, sustainable “balance” as adumbrated by General Chang.
For historical and practical reasons, Japan should remain “pacifist” and dedicated to the spirit of Article 9 of its “Peace Constitution” which reads in part: “…the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes….In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”
Prime Minister Abe’s proposed amendment of Article 9 (the Liberal Democratic Party’s draft proposal) retains the first sentence of the original, but changes the second to stipulate the country’s right of self-defense. A new paragraph stipulates that Japan will maintain military forces under the supreme command of the Prime Minister “to safeguard the security of the people and the peace and independence of the country.”
It is not a Japan possessing credible self-defense forces, governed by a Constitution abjuring aggressive war, that are to be feared. It is the current “unbalanced” East Asian order of U.S. military hegemony and potentially hostile alliance system. It was an accomplishment of the Hagel-Chang meeting to highlight this reality.
Stephen M. Harner served in the U.S. Department of State 1975-81. Currently a resident in Shanghai and Tokyo, authoring the “Whither Japan” blog on Forbes.com, he formerly worked in Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei and Hong Kong for Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch, and Ping An Bank. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University (SAIS).