Back to militarism?

Print edition : August 23, 2013

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The July 23 elections to the Upper House of Parliament gave his LDP and the New Komeito a working majority in both Lower and Upper Houses. Photo: JIJI PRESS/AFP

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Azo. He was among the senior Ministers who visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine. Photo: TORU YAMANAKA/AFP

SDF soldiers near Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo, in April. Expansion of military capabilities is high on Shinzo Abe's agenda. Photo: ISSEI KATO/Reuters

Containers being loaded onto a cargo ship at a port in Tokyo. The Prime Minister's "Abenomics" has devalued the yen, making Japanese exports competitive once again. Photo: ISSEI KATO/Reuters

A resurgent right-wing Prime Minister in Japan sees China as the main enemy and promises to rewrite his country’s Constitution to allow the deployment of its defence forces overseas.

JAPANESE voters once again gave their vote of confidence to the right-wing government led by Shinzo Abe in the pivotal elections to the Upper House held on July 23. The results have given the ruling coalition consisting of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the New Komeito a working majority in both Lower and Upper Houses. The government has plans to pass some ambitious bills and radically overhaul its foreign and economic policies. The Prime Minister’s much-touted “Abenomics” has effectively devalued the Japanese currency, making Japanese exports to the international market competitive once again. The government wants to revive the stagnant economy by pumping in 46 trillion yen (more than $400 billion).

On the foreign policy front, Abe has made competition with China his number one priority. Last year, China officially overtook Japan as the world’s second biggest economy. Encouraged by the United States, Japan has expended its energy raking up territorial disputes with China. Abe even described China as a country that had a “deeply ingrained” ambition to rake up territorial disputes with neighbours.

Japan’s territorial dispute with China revolves round the tiny Senkaku/Diaayovu islands. Beijing was, of course, angry with the Japanese Prime Minister’s statement and demanded a clarification. The Japanese Foreign Ministry then stated that Abe’s quotes about China were “misleading”. Japan also has territorial disputes with South Korea over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands.

Abe has threatened to rewrite the pacifist Japanese Constitution that the U.S. imposed on the country after the Second World War. Abe has repeatedly stated that he wants the Japanese army, officially known as the “Self-Defence Forces”, to be unfettered from the restraints imposed by a constitution drafted by an occupying force. Under the current Constitution, Japan, one of the U.S’ trusted allies in the region, cannot deploy its troops in foreign countries. For a long time, the Japanese political elite has cherished the dream of Japan’s army participating in the military adventures of the U.S. in foreign climes under the guise of “collective self-defence”. In one of his final campaign speeches before the elections to the Upper House, Abe pledged to go ahead with far-reaching constitutional changes to make Japan once again a “proud nation”.

The Prime Minister has so far not talked openly about amending Article 9 of the Constitution, which “renounces war” and “the threat of use of force as a means of settling international disputes”. Article 9 specifically prohibits “the maintenance of land, sea and air force”. This has not, however, prevented the Japanese state from making, with the active help of the U.S., its “Self-Defence Forces” one of the most powerful in the region and deploying them in so-called “reconstruction activities” to help U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. President Barack Obama has also encouraged the Japanese government to play a more robust security role in his “pivot to Asia” policy.

The U.S., from available indications, tacitly supports Abe’s efforts to engage in “collective self-defence”, which would allow the Japanese army to conduct joint military operations with its counterparts in the U.S. and elsewhere. After Abe took over as Prime Minister in December 2012, the Japanese government increased military spending for the first time in more than a decade.

Defence White Paper

The latest Japanese Defence White Paper, released in July, identifies China as the main threat and lays emphasis on expanding Japan’s military capabilities and strengthening ties with the U.S. After winning the election in December last year the LDP had pledged to make Japan stronger militarily to take on a resurgent China. The LDP’s main campaign plank then was to build a “strong nation” and a “strong military”.

The Japanese Prime Minster has also spoken about the need to have the capability for pre-emptive strikes against enemy bases abroad. He said that “pre-emptive strikes” were essential to counter the threat of missile strikes from hostile nations. Japanese leaders have said that their military has the right to take pre-emptive action against enemy bases overseas if there is a credible and imminent threat to the country. The previous Defence White Papers had identified North Korea as the main military threat to Japan. The latest one, however, categorically paints China as the major potential security threat to the country.

Even the U.S. seems to have been taken aback by some of the positions the right-wing government in Tokyo intends to adopt. A recent report in The Wall Street Journal said the Obama administration was alarmed by Abe’s ambitious nuclear policy. Japan is preparing to start a massive nuclear fuel processing plant capable of producing 9 tonnes of weapons-usable plutonium annually, enough to build 2,000 bombs.

The Obama administration objected to the plan by saying that it could encourage a nuclear arms race in the region and beyond. U.S. officials fear that Taiwan and South Korea may follow suit. South Korea has an advanced nuclear programme and only because of U.S. pressure it has abandoned its programme to produce a nuclear weapon.

In 2011, Japan lifted its ban on arms exports so as to facilitate the participation of big Japanese companies in multinational weapons projects. During the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Japan in May, it was reported that the Japanese were on the verge of clinching a deal with India to sell 15 U.S.-2 amphibious military planes. If the Indian government goes ahead with the deal, it will be the first time since the Second World War that Japan has got involved in the sale of military hardware.

“Quadrilateral axis”

Japan has wooed India for many years in its efforts to build an anti-China military alliance. Abe was instrumental in promoting the “quadrilateral axis” comprising the U.S., Japan, Australia and India during his first stint in office in 2006-07. Last December, Abe branded the “quadrilateral” as the “Democratic Asian Security Diamond” and emphasised the need of the four countries to “maintain freedom of navigation” in the Indian Ocean. During the Indian Prime Minster’s recent visit, Abe said it was up to “India from the West and Japan from the East” to maintain peace in the region. He pointedly excluded China from his calculus.

Shrine, an “obstacle”

Abe, like many in the Japanese political firmament, continues to be in denial mode about the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army during the Second World War. He has been a visitor to the controversial Yasukuni shrine where the ashes of many Japanese “war criminals” are kept, though he has not done so since his re-election as Prime Minister. After taking over, he did send ritual offerings bearing the insignia of the Prime Minister. However, his deputy, the even more hawkish Taro Aso, and other senior Ministers have visited the shrine honouring the Japanese war dead.

The repeated annual visits by senior Japanese politicians to the shrine have irked governments in China and the two Koreas, countries which were under brutal Japanese military occupation. South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se cancelled an official visit in April in protest against the frequent homage the ruling establishment has paid to Japan’s war heroes. The South Korean Foreign Ministry, in a statement, expressed “deep concern and regret” over the visits to a shrine “that glorifies Japan’s wars of aggression”. Beijing has let it be known that the frequent visits to Yasukuni will be “an obstacle” in the improvement of bilateral relations.

Many Japanese voters have been swayed by the heated nationalistic rhetoric Abe has used. This is despite the fact that around 50 per cent of the electorate did not bother to vote in these elections. The turnout was one of the lowest in post-War Japanese history. “I am back” and “so is Japan”, Abe theatrically proclaimed to reporters in Washington earlier in the year during his first visit to the U.S. after taking over the top job for the second time.

The Japanese electorate was disappointed by the performance of the previous government led by the Democratic Party (DP). The failure of the DP to revive the economy or fulfil its campaign promises led to its eclipse. The DP’s first Prime Minster, Yukio Hatoyama, had to leave office after he unsuccessfully tried to evict the U.S. from its military base in Yokohama. Hatoyama had also advocated closer ties with China. Relocating the U.S. base was one of the election pledges of the DP. Japan is still described as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the U.S. off the coast of China. There are 50,000 U.S. troops permanently based in Japan.

It was on the DP’s watch that the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the worst since Chernobyl, happened. In the elections to the Upper House held in July, the DP suffered an ignominious defeat. Many Japanese chose to support the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), viewing it as the only party that opposes the LDP on ideology and national objectives. The JCP won a seat from the Tokyo district for the first time in 12 years. It won seats in the Osaka and Kyoto prefectures also.

The LDP has ruled Japan since the 1950s. For that matter, the DP, which substituted the LDP as the ruling party in 2009, consisted mainly of leaders from the LDP. In the latest election to the Upper House, the DP won only 15 seats, its worst performance since its creation in 1998. The LDP, which critics say is neither Liberal nor Democratic, seems to be destined for another long stint in Japanese politics. Japanese Prime Ministers, on the other hand, have in recent times had short stints in office, some of them for only a few months. If “Abenomics” of the faction-ridden LDP fails to deliver, the cycle could be repeated.