Military moves

Published : Jan 12, 2007 00:00 IST

With a Defence Ministry in place, Japan takes one more step towards becoming a "normal" military power.

P. S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

Japan, still zealous about its official status as a pacifist nation, has taken a decisive step towards becoming a "normal" military power. For the first time since the demise of Imperial Japan over 60 years ago, a Ministry of Defence will be established in Tokyo on January 9. The constitutional mandate for this flows from the laws that Japan's bicameral Diet (Parliament) passed by December 15, 2006. The House of Representatives endorsed the Bills, known as steps for "transition to the Ministry of Defence", on December 1 and the upper chamber, the House of Councillors, two weeks later.

The transition means that the existing Defence Agency, which oversees all wings of the country's Self-Defence Forces (SDF) at the field level, will cease to exist. The SDF is pacifist terminology for Japan's regular military units, which function, however, under some well-defined constitutional dos and don'ts. The relevant new laws have not abrogated these dos and don'ts. In fact, the Defence Agency will become the proposed full-fledged Ministry, on a par with the other wings of the Prime Minister's Cabinet under the existing parliamentary system.

Viewed in this perspective, the change should hardly merit much attention outside Japan. In a sense, therefore, Tokyo's neighbours, including the rapidly ascendant China and the renascent Russia, have not felt rattled by the development. The reality is that these laws do not amount to a revision of the pacifist Constitution, which was imposed on Japan by the United States after the Second World War.

Nonetheless, a fundamental rewriting of Japan's basic statute is very much on the political cards in Tokyo. Of course, no bets have yet been placed regarding the timing and content of the prospective changes. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, after assuming office in September, did pledge to revise the document that was drafted when Japan was, for some time, under U.S. "occupation" (his own view) in the last century.

During his campaign for the prime ministerial post, Abe spoke about a five-year timeline for enacting a new Constitution that would be "appropriate for the new era" of 21st-century global politics. Yet, after reaching the helm, he has been more circumspect. Surely, there is no sign of cold feet; but the sensitive domain is of direct concern to not only Japan but also its neighbours, all victims of its now-bygone imperial politics.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Abe has indicated that dtente with China is his diplomatic priority on two counts. First, for a variety of reasons, Japan's ties with its neighbours, China and South Korea in particular, were deeply ruptured during the tenure of his mentor and previous Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Better ties with them may enable Abe to position Japan for regional and global roles commensurate with its status as an economic superpower, now recovering from a recent downturn, and as a major democracy. Secondly, and no less importantly, political dtente with China and South Korea can give Japan the much-needed domestic ambience to debate and enact constitutional changes that would replace pacifism by "normal politics" as the state ideology.

With such considerations in mind, Abe has already held a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao in a statesmanlike fashion in Beijing. This impressed China, which described the meeting last October as "a turning point" for the better in the estranged bilateral engagement. The story is not much different in the case of Abe's meeting with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. Their meeting in Seoul on October 9 coincided with North Korea's dramatic nuclear-weapon test in defiance of international opinion. This helped Abe, as did Japan's proactive role as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, on this issue.

Overall, the going has turned out to be surprisingly smooth for Abe on the external front, and he has also navigated the political cross currents at home and pushed for the laws aimed at forming a Defence Ministry. He presides over a coalition, and New Komeito, the junior partner of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), espouses the pacifist agenda passionately. So, the once-postponed piloting of the relevant Bills was advanced by several weeks from the intended new date. The objective was to help New Komeito dust off the political embarrassment of these non-pacifist laws before facing the electorate for the Upper House elections by the summer of 2007.

For Abe, political support from the main Opposition outfit, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), came at a price that suited his game plan of projecting the move as a responsible transition from pacifism to a normal military posture. The passage of the laws to form the Defence Ministry was portrayed as just the first essential step towards remodelling Japan as a normal military power without any hegemonic agenda of the open or hidden kind.

The DPJ successfully pressed for the adoption of a supplementary resolution as the price for backing, in the Lower House, the LDP's Bills. The political thrust of the resolution was to tighten "civilian control" over the proposed Ministry and the SDF. Closely related to this was the demand that all deployments of SDF personnel on overseas missions should be justified sufficiently and explained to members of the Diet.

The political logic of this demand can be traced to Japan's recent deployment of SDF personnel, on "a non-combat humanitarian mission", in Iraq in aid of the U.S.-led occupation forces there.

This mission, now completed, as also Japan's project of extending offshore refuelling assistance to U.S. forces and others in the Afghan theatre of the "anti-terror war", were authorised under special Diet laws.

The DPJ was equally keen that a recent "bid-rigging scandal", which "tarnished" the image of the existing Defence Facilities Administration Agency (DFAA), be thoroughly investigated. Probity and discipline were the centrepieces of the DPJ's demands.

With the LDP agreeing to the DPJ's resolution, the Bills were passed - to effect not only the creation of a new Defence Ministry but also the phased abolition of the "scandal-hit" DFAA. The working of the prospective Ministry, too, will be monitored by an "inspection" panel to be headed by a person from outside the planned new military-related civilian network.

The government's White Paper on "Defence of Japan 2006" has outlined that the "transition of the Defence Agency to a Ministry has [the] following meanings: (1) to enhance and strengthen the [country's] response to emergency situations; and (2) to be able to work proactively for the peace and stability of the international community on Japan's own initiatives".

For long, post-imperial Japan has relied exclusively on its security-related alliance with the U.S. And, experts like Takashi Inoguchi and John Ikenberry have drawn attention to the "reinventing" of this alliance at the beginning of the 21st century. In this context, Japan's latest desire to take its "own initiatives" - for a "proactive" role in ensuring international peace - can turn out to be a new dynamic that other powers in Asia will want to monitor and prepare themselves for.

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