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Opinion

October 4, 2015

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Japan’s shift in ‘peace’ posture

Imperial Japan’s militaristic trajectory came to an end in Tokyo Bay in September 1945 with the signing of surrender instrument onboard Battleship USS Missouri by then foreign minister Shigemitsu and General Douglas MacArthur for their respective sides. Describing the prevailing mood, Admiral Stuart S Murray recalls that MacArthur, in deference to the millions who perished during the war, didn’t want the Japanese delegation to step onboard USS Missouri any earlier than just five seconds before te scheduled time of 9:00am and not a second longer.
Sailors know how challenging it is to run these things within five seconds, especially on a battleship – and life not made any easier by Shigemitsu’s wooden leg as he had lost his own some years back. But this was the command of a man riding high on the crest of history and no one dared defy it. So, the captain had the delegation’s arrival practised nearly twenty times but ninety seconds was the best he could clock. In the end, the vanquished Japanese were treated with dignity and respect and even MacArthur’s worst detractors concede that he conducted the ceremony with magnanimity and grace that made America proud.
Shortly thereafter, Emperor Hirohito formally acknowledged that General MacArthur’s word in Japan would come foremost of all Japanese officialdom – a painful acknowledgement indeed as historically Japan had never before been occupied by an alien force. The US later wrote Japan’s constitution, Article 9 of which states that “aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”.
As Japan concentrated on rebuilding a shattered country, its population reaped dividends from its pacifist constitution. For the next seventy years, no Japanese died abroad fighting another country’s war, nor did any Japanese soldier

ever kill a man belonging to another country anywhere in the world. In 1954 Japan was allowed to raise self-defence forces (SDF) but the constitutional ban on their extra-territorial deployment remained intact.
All that has changed this month as Japan’s parliament gave final approval to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to legislate for an expanded overseas role of the country’s SDFs. A key feature of the new law is an end to a long-standing ban on exercising the right of collective self-defence, or defending the US or another friendly country which comes under attack in cases where Japan faces a threat to its survival.
Abe called the change as “normalisation” of Japan’s military posture and “necessary to protect people’s lives and peaceful way of living and for the purposes of preventing wars”. He specifically mentioned that it will empower government to enter into an alliance with US for such eventualities as war in Korean peninsula or blockade of sea lanes of communications in the South China Sea which could seriously jeopardise Japan’s security and national interest.
The shift will fundamentally alter balance of power in East Asia as and when Japan’s SDFs begin to operate in support of its allies at sea or in air with a different set of Rules of Engagements (ROEs). In the regional context, the move is aimed at enhancing deterrence against growing Chinese military muscle, the latest manifestation of which came this month in the form of a huge military extravaganza in Beijing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of China’s victory over Japan and end of World War II.
In China, where 15 million people died due to Japanese aggression during World War II, the change was vehemently opposed as painful memories run deep. It demanded from Japan to take notice of domestic and international opposition to the bill and learn lessons from history to stay on the path of peaceful development. It called upon the Japanese government to speak and act cautiously in security and military matters and take appropriate measures to maintain regional peace and stability.
To be sure, there had been significant domestic opposition to the bill both inside and outside parliament. The common man on the street, whose counsel must always be heeded, fears that as a result of this amendment, Japan could be sucked into US-led wars, which could adversely affect an economy already struggling with recessionary trends.
Worryingly, the protests have been joined by students who up till now were considered to have been disenchanted with politics. They have vowed to keep agitating and send home all those who voted in favour of the change – in the elections next year. But the protest level is nowhere near what forced Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kish, to resign as prime minister in 1954 when he pushed a US-Japan security accord in parliament against public sentiments.
This development hasn’t taken place overnight as there had been an intense internal debate in Japan for some time about shifting from passive pacifism to active pacifism – which was considered to be more in conformity with the geo-political environments of 21st century. Passive pacifism in the immediate aftermath of World War II served Japan well as atonement for its wartime actions and the nation’s pledge not to repeat past mistakes. In active pacifism Japan, as far as possible, sought to play its part in eliminating global injustices and understanding apprehensions of other nations – or at least so went the argument, but constitutional provisions came in the way.
With the demise of the Soviet Union and after 9/11, the world has been in a flux where hopes of nations like Japan in any ‘UN-led’ world order diminished as failures like the UN mission in Somalia (1995), Nato’s bombing campaign in former Yugoslavia without UNSC resolutions (1999) and US attack on Iraq (2003) exposed the UN’s limitations as a ‘peace enforcer’. As for hopes in any ‘US-led’ world order to usher in greater global stability, it is felt that the US may once have been a Gulliver on the world scene with its soft power in Hollywood, internet, GPS, McDonalds, English language, democracy and an openness to foreigners but too many Lilliputians have tied it down to the ground. It therefore makes sense for nations to fend for themselves and be ready if shove comes to push.
The shift had also become necessary because of Japan’s long-standing desire to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council; it invariably fell short on convincing the world what it could do and whether it had the political will and military ability to serve the world body as a permanent member. Abolishing Article 9 of its constitution will help towards that end if an expansion in the strength of UNSC permanent members ever materialises.
The country though will still need to do a lot in the years ahead. To name just one area, it will have to establish an independent intelligence organisation, at par with those of other permanent members, if it wants to play an effective role and not be led from the nose by the US/UK who have a notorious track record of ‘sexing up’ dossiers (Tony Blair’s words) of any country they want to punish.
While the change in Japan’s constitution may have been spurred on by internal dynamics, there is little doubt that it had full support of the US since the shift in Japan’s defence posture and US’ strategic ‘Asia pivot’ in the 21st century run on a convergence course. The Pentagon intends to shift 60 percent of US Navy to the Pacific region by 2020, and synergy with SDFs will greatly help US foreign policy and economic objectives.
President Xi has vowed to make China a great maritime power and tasked its navy with defending country’s sovereignty both in the ‘near seas’ and the ‘far seas’. China seriously contests the airspace over the South China Sea as reflected from a recent near mid-air collision incident. Given the hunger for more and more resources in the future, this contest could only intensify over time and involve Japan if there are US-Japan alliances to which Abe hinted during the parliamentary debate.
The fears of ordinary Japanese about their country getting sucked into situations triggered by others may not after all be too farfetched. US-Japan relations have changed a lot since those historical moments when a physically challenged foreign minister Shigemitsu struggled with his timings for an unenviable tryst with destiny – but then so have global politics.
The writer is a retired vice admiral.
Email: [email protected]

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