Asian Realignment

From the June 1999 Trumpet Print Edition

As Russia and China continue to move toward a mutual security alliance, Japan is emerging with renewed indications of pursuing a foreign policy more at odds with the U.S.

Since the Asian financial meltdown and America’s lukewarm response to rendering any real help to Japan in the slough of her economic malaise, Japan has had to face up to the fact that, notwithstanding that nation’s close alliance with America since World War II, they are now largely on their own.

Next to the U.S. and the EU, Japan, despite its current economic woes, is still the third-largest economy in the world. But a huge gap exists, following the lower house of parliament passing revisions to the U.S.-Japan defense co-operation guidelines on April 27, between its economic size and its capability to defend its global interests.

Japan faces a watershed. The country’s internal debate on closing the gap between its significant role in international economic affairs and its felt need to become more assertive in the political and military sphere is heating up. The experiences of the 1990-91 Gulf War, the 1996-97 hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Peru, followed by North Korea’s launch last August of a two-stage Taepodong missile over Japan’s Honshu Island, all have worked to heighten a new sense of urgency in the Japanese leadership reconsidering the constitutional limitations on their military forces.

Earlier this year, all major Japanese political factions reached agreement on a general policy direction—that the Japanese self-defense forces should be given expanded capability to participate in missions abroad, including UN missions and initiatives designed to rescue Japanese nationals caught in situations where their security is at risk. Increasingly, Japanese leaders are speaking out on the need for Japan to seek a higher military profile.

Japan’s tendency to play down its past militaristic history is being overtaken by a need to reconfigure its security arrangements to reflect the impact of diminishing U.S. power and, in particular, the rise of China to great-power status in the Far East.

Addressing the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on March 16, Kunihiko Saito, outgoing Japanese ambassador to the U.S., warned of the heightened risk of reviving militant nationalist sentiment under the sensitivities currently straining relations between the U.S. and Japan. “Memories of the 1930s and ’40s are still fresh in our minds. We should always be careful about the revival of nationalism,” said Saito. He added, “If the United States’ economy starts to have problems, the issue of trade imbalance will surely become a very serious political issue between our two countries” (Stratfor Systems, March 19).

Adding fuel to the debate over Japan’s national security is the current rush of the unemployed, displaced by the continuing Japanese recession, into the nation’s military forces. Unlike the U.S., straining to attract manpower to its depleted defense forces, Japan is booming in military recruitment.

The continuing trade war with the U.S., Japan’s ongoing dispute with Russia on sovereignty over the Kurile Islands, its current political debate on Japanese military forces, perceived North Korean and Chinese aggression, and the call from Southeast Asian countries for Japan to take a more assertive role in Asia will all inevitably combine to push Japan back onto the world stage as a military power of note.