Don’t Hyperventilate about Japan Turning Right

  • Photo Courtesy of Wilimedia
    Dec 18, 2012

    With the landslide victory of Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) this past Sunday, the media is atwitter with warnings of dangerous new friction in Northeast Asia. Shinzo Abe, the man about to return to power after resigning as prime minister five years ago, has said he will get tough with China and might reconsider past apologies for some of Japan’s wartime transgressions. If the new government follows through on some of this overheated rhetoric, it could complicate U.S. foreign policy and hurt Japan’s image abroad. But that does not mean that Japan is becoming a dangerous nation. If anything, the growing realism in Japanese security policy should be welcomed by the United States.

    With Chinese defense spending increasing at double digits and an aggressive new Chinese maritime doctrine aimed at pressing outward to control what strategists in Beijing call the “Near Sea,” the current constraints on Japanese defense policies pose more risk than any specter of returning Japanese militarism. Japan spends less than 1 percent of GDP on defense and Abe will likely increase that, particularly to support the Japanese Coast Guard, which is currently overwhelmed trying to track the surge in Chinese ships operating in and around not only the disputed Senkaku islands, but the entire Japanese archipelago.

    Abe has also promised to exercise Japan’s right of collective defense under the U.N. Charter, which would allow Japan to do more to support U.S. forces in crises not involving a direct attack on Japanese territory. This would move the U.S.-Japan alliance in the direction of NATO or the U.S. alliance with Australia, where we can expect support if the U.S. or a like-minded state comes under attack. Immediately after 9/11, for example, NATO and Australia were able to invoke our treaties to offer military assistance, while Japan had to find highly restricted workarounds to help refuel coalition forces in the Indian Ocean and provide humanitarian assistance in Iraq. Exercising the right of collective defense will be particularly important for joint efforts on missile defense as North Korea expands its arsenal for striking both Japan and the United States. Another trademark of Abe’s foreign policy is to extend security cooperation with other maritime democracies such as Australia and India, two countries with which he initiated unprecedented defense cooperation agreements when last in power. These are all steps that enhance security in the Pacific.

    It is also misleading to cast Japan as a pariah within Asia, as much of the commentary surrounding the return of Abe has. In Southeast Asia, opinion polls about Japan are generally more favorable than polls about either the United States or China. Countries like the Philippines and Vietnam are particularly eager to see a more resolute Japan given their own maritime problems with Beijing. The two countries in the region where Japan polls negatively are China and South Korea. Even between those two immediate neighbors, however, Chinese views of Japan are far more hostile. Moreover, Korean views of China tend to be far more negative than views of Japan.

    Therein lays the real problem for U.S. policy in some of the overheated nationalistic rhetoric of the right in Japan. Japanese and Korean leaders tend to agree that the future of Asia depends on democracy and the rule of law. Chinese leaders tell their Korean counterparts that the real issue in Asia is blocking Japanese militarism. The more these latter words resonate with Koreans, the more Japan’s position in Northeast Asia will be weakened, and along with it the position of the United States. The Asia-Pacific region is moving towards greater embrace of universal norms that will ultimately shape Chinese leaders’ choices about the future of their own nation. Abe has himself been an outspoken champion of those values. Given the rapid power changes in Asia, it is critical that U.S. allies rally around a common vision of the region’s future and not be distracted by divisive issues that opponents of democracy will use to justify their own authoritarianism. It is equally important that the United States, Japan and Korea work together to dissuade North Korea from a third nuclear test and to strengthen common defense should one occur. Japan’s turn to the right is not a threat to peace and stability, but the wrong tone in Tokyo could set back U.S. and Japanese strategy for the region.

    Chances are strong that the new government in Tokyo will move from ideology to pragmatism. The outgoing Democratic Party of Japan was swept into power in a wave of anti-incumbent furor in 2009, but proved incapable of governing effectively, particularly after Japan was hit by massive earthquakes and tsunami in March 2011. Abe has won a large majority, but that means little with Japan’s fickle voters these days. To win longer-term support from the public he must demonstrate competence on the economy. He has also made it clear that he knows Japan’s ability to deal with the security problems in his backyard rests first and foremost on a solid alliance with the United States. As allies, we should step up support for Japan’s efforts to secure its sea lanes, while making it clear that U.S. interests are served by a Japan that is proud, resolute and strong – but not one that is picking gratuitous fights with other important partners in the region.

    (This Commentary originally appeared in the December 18, 2012, issue of CNN Global Public Square.)

    Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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