Japanese worries

Print edition : March 27, 1999

A changing international and regional environment has forced Japan to rethink its defence-related inhibitions.

THE Far East is getting out of control, with diminishing prospects of arms control and de-nuclearisation in the Korean peninsula, and with growing prospects of competition and rivalry in strategic, economic and diplomatic spheres in relations among the People's Republic of China, Japan, North Korea and the United States. In this environment, military security has become a major topic of discussion among Japanese political parties. And the way Japan is going will have a fallout on strategic politics in the entire region.

Several issues now figure prominently in Japanese politics. One of these relates to the establishment of a Theatre Missile Defence system, which requires cooperation between Japan and the U.S. and will weaken China's offensive nuclear and missile capability. (It may be adopted by Taiwan as well, thus delaying further China's cherished goal of unification of Taiwan with the mainland.)

Secondly, the 1997 U.S.-Japan military guidelines emphasise the importance of security in the area surrounding Japan. This has a situational and functional definition. Left unsaid is the view that the guidelines include the security of Taiwan and the Taiwan Straits through which international commerce flows. Japan's Constitution is based, as was its defence policy during the Cold War, on the principle that Japan's Self Defence Force is meant to defend the country after a military attack on it has occurred. The significance of the new guidelines is that their scope is broader; they give Japan an important support role in the region beyond its territorial limit. Now, Japan is likely to implement these guidelines; the older ones had been agreed upon but were not implemented.

Thirdly, there are plans to reorganise Japan's security machinery and to make the Cabinet the most powerful agency after the Prime Minister, the centre for crisis management and decision-making. The reorganisation will also involve the development of institutional arrangements to improve the coordination of intelligence and its speedy use by military agencies, which have thus far been compartmentalised. This may, in time, result in an emphasis on greater reliance on Japanese intelligence (from military and diplomatic sources as well as from the big Japanese business houses which have an international presence) and on the development of satellite technology-based intelligence gathering, which may be carried out indigenously or with the cooperation of the U.S. (The U.S. is trying to convince Japan that cooperation is a better option because indigenous development would cost more.)

Finally, the future pattern of Japan-U.S. relations is a big issue because historically Japanese thinkers have wanted Japan to be the engine of change in the management of Asian affairs. This, however, clashes with the ambitions of China and the U.S. in Asia. Does Japan owe the U.S. something? Who is using whom in this interesting and complex relationship since 1945?

There are at least six variables in Japan's relations with the rest of the Far East. The first relates to North Korea. The missile test carried out by North Korea over Japan in August 1998 clearly signalled the existence of a military threat to Japan and produced a strong reaction among the Japanese people, the political class in particular. Besides, North Korea has abducted a few Japanese women married to North Koreans. For the Japanese public, this issue has a humanitarian resonance. Secondly, developments in the 1990s, especially the North Korean missile test, radicalised inter-party dynamics. Thirdly, China's attitude towards Japan and its bitterness about the lack of real remorse over the crimes committed on the Chinese people during the Second World War indicate a long-term rivalry that is, however, masked by diplomatic smiles. Fourthly, the nuclear tests carried out by India and Pakistan in May 1998 signalled that the non-proliferation issue has not been put to rest in Asia. Fifthly, the U.S.' position in Japan's strategic planning was a constant in the past but is now a variable element. Finally, although Russia has a marginal role in the Far East, for the Japanese, it is down but not out; Japan's Foreign Office is keeping the lines of communication with Russia open, not only in relation to the disputed islands but also with Russia-China relations in mind.

Japanese professionals obviously discussed security issues during the Cold War, but the U.S. Government actually handled the issues in the region. Japan was content to increase its economic clout in the Asia-Pacific, Africa and Latin America. Furthermore, constitutional constraints (especially Article 9 which forbids war as an option) as well as the Japanese people's allergy to militarism and nuclear arms restrict public discourse on military affairs. The taboos were in full play and the external situation was manageable in U.S. hands. However, developments in the 1990s changed both the external and internal setting in Japan and thus caused a shift in the attitudes of the Japanese political class and public.

Four major developments of the 1990s have shaped Japanese security debate. First, although Japan made a generous contribution to the war against Iraq, its chequebook diplomacy helped it neither to gain diplomatic influence in the Gulf region nor to win contracts in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It was the U.S. that gained from this. This was good business and good strategy for the Americans, but it created strong resentment among the Japanese. A rethinking led to the involvement of Japanese soldiers in non-combatant roles in Cambodia and in peacekeeping missions elsewhere. However, even this was the result of a debate in Japan about peacekeeping and peacemaking. Meanwhile, Japan still relies on chequebook diplomacy; it is a reliable and major donor of developmental assistance to Third World countries. The ODA is a major tool of Japanese foreign policy. This practically guarantees Japan votes at the United Nations. India, for instance, cannot compete with Japan in this area. At the same time, Tokyo understands the limitations of chequebook diplomacy in dealing with major powers.

Secondly, China's missile tests across Taiwan in 1996-97, its push into the South China Seas, its ability to interfere with the sea lanes in the Taiwan Straits (which are vital for Japan's economic and military security), its criticism of Japanese militarism, and its ties with the U.S. show China as a long-term problem for Japan. Tokyo also knows that Beijing will not support Japan's claim for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council because China wants to be the sole Asian voice and the sole Asian negotiating partner of the U.S. in Asian and international affairs. The China factor stimulated in part Japan's interest in the revised military guidelines with the U.S.

Japan's interest in the developments in China is not limited to China's internal politics and its military orientation. If China devalues its currency, it can affect Japan's economic prospects as well as its claim to be the economic engine of Asia. Tied to this is the Taiwan factor. While modern China has never ruled Taiwan, Japan has. Japanese rule apparently had a significant effect on Taiwan: it ensured law and order and put in place a good system of education. Many Taiwanese parliamentarians speak Japanese fluently. Besides, economic and parliamentary relations exist between Tokyo and Taipei.

The third development concerned the collapse of the Suharto regime in Indonesia. For Japan the lesson of the Indonesian situation today is that economic and social instability in Indonesia can breed regional insecurity. The Indonesian question raises issues of internal cohesion in South-East Asian states and brings into play the significant Islamic movement in the region and China's interests because of the targeting of people of Chinese origin in Indonesia. Indonesia sits astride the Malacca Straits - a strategic and commercial highway, which is indeed a lifeline for Japan. The guerilla activities in Papua New Guinea also hold dangerous potential for Japan. Besides, Indonesia is a major supplier of energy to Japan and Japan has interests in Indonesian banking. The stakes are indeed high for Japan.

The fourth development, North Korea's missile test over Japan in August 1998, shocked the Japanese political class and public opinion. The test proved that North Korea can hit Okinawa and Alaska (U.S). North Korea's missile capability is now a security question for both Japan and the U.S., but Japan is closer to North Korea and does not have a missile defence system. As far as the U.S. is concerned, North Korea's nuclear and missile capability is a long-term problem which could be solved through bilateral talks. However, for Japan, it is an immediate problem, and Tokyo does not have a real voice in matters of negotiations with North Korea. Thus, although Japan and the U.S. have an intelligence-sharing agreement, doubts have emerged in the Japanese mind about the timing and quality of U.S. intelligence inputs into Japan, with regard to the North Korean missile test. Japan's belief that its security needs are being taken care of by the U.S. has been shaken. The doubts and questions feed the Japanese feeling that Japan and the U.S. have divergent goals. Because of the negative fallout, opinion in Japan has hardened against North Korea and it is sceptical vis-a-vis Washington. Is the shift part of a Machiavellian plan, or simply a reaction to external events? It is probably both.

Thus, the missile test has turned out to be both a crisis and an opportunity for Japanese security planners. What are the inter-party dynamics following North Korea's test? Since the U.S. did not react the same way as Japan did, a new sentiment is in play in the Diet, Japan's Parliament. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the Liberals and the Democrats reflect the dominant view that Japan requires a strong defence posture and defence plan so that it could function as a normal state with a reformist agenda. On the other hand, the Opposition, comprising Socialists and Communists, has traditionally opposed Japanese military development and U.S.-Japan military ties; they still go ballistic over the idea of a strong defence posture.

Moreover, Japan is looking beyond the immediate North Korean missile agenda to the China factor, 50 years down the road. Tokyo experts believe that China is becoming competitive vis-a-vis Japan in every area, including military. Thanks to the North Korean missile test, the debate on the Theatre Missile Defence system started in Japan. This defence system would provide Japan with protection against Chinese missiles. By complaining bitterly against the Theatre Missile Defence system, Beijing is revealing that its missiles are aimed at Japan as well. Otherwise why should China be concerned about such a defensive capability? The Japanese public was not concerned about the Theatre Missile Defence system until the North Korean test and until Beijing complained. Now the Japanese establishment is ready to move towards the missile defence system and to implement the new U.S.-Japan military guidelines. Both these concern the Chinese political and military establishments in matters that involve Chinese prestige, that is, Taiwan and China's desire to be the sole Asian voice in international security affairs.

BEIJING has a big problem with North Korea. China tells Japan not to be provocative with its hardening stance but does not have a problem with North Korean missile activity outside its backyard (for example, in Pakistan and Iran). Beijing wants stability in the Korean peninsula because its strategic interests are immediately involved. Beijing was displeased with North Korea's adventurism in sending a missile over Japan; however, it does not want Japan in the Security Council, and it wants Korea to remain divided (the U.S., Japan and South Korea want unification while Russia has no clear stand on the issue) because unification would bring U.S. influence to the Yalu, the reason why Beijing went to war in Korea. There are already two million Koreans in China's border areas.

Last, but not the least, China does not want an increase in Japanese and U.S. defence capabilities in the region. Strategic coordination between the two could also help Taiwan's defence and delay Taiwan's unification. Japanese experts, therefore, maintain that the idea that China is bound to become a major power in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century is not realistic for neither Japan nor the U.S. will allow this to happen. Also, the Japanese and Chinese images and world-views clash. China's political class sees Japan as a technological superpower but hates Japan's role in the Second World War. The Japanese recognise China's civilisational pull but think that the Communist state is both backward and confused. India is viewed as an interesting country - poor but heterogeneous and democratic, with the expectation that its economic development will take off by the year 2020. There is, however, no confidence in Japan about the state of China's political system by 2020 . Whether it is a strong and militant China under Communist Party leadership or a confused, weakened China - both pose threats to Japan. The former because it reinforces the competitiveness with Japan, and the latter because it means a growing pool of refugees who are willing to go anywhere.

In Far East, the end of the Cold War was not the end of history as Francis Fukuyama foolishly asserted. Nor can hard statist security issues be wished away and replaced by arms control, multilateralism and soft power, as the Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axeworthy often says. China, Japan, the U.S., the two Koreas and Russia know the issues in the area surrounding Japan but they do not want to mention them publicly yet. The Japanese political class is going through a generational change. For the older generation, the main experience was the Second World War. The younger generation wants normalcy and better defence planning. They point to changes in the international and regional environment and to new threats that face Japan. The nuclear allergy is still in place, but defence-related inhibitions are fast eroding. Japan's dominant political class now wants to be taken seriously in the area surrounding the country.

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