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     Apr 13, 2012

Missile makes Japan twitch new muscle
By Yong Kwon

Japan has been one of the most active players in the North Korean "satellite" crisis. As a country well within the range of Pyongyang's ballistic missiles, Tokyo has good reason to be concerned, but the implications of its assertiveness in the past month are interesting in their own right.

When South Korea said on March 26 that it would intercept Pyongyang's Unha-3 rocket if the satellite's trajectory appears errant, the warning came three days after Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka's announcement that Tokyo was readying Aegis-class warships and PAC-3 surface-to-air missiles in preparation for North Korea's rocket launch. That was quite a move for a country that constitutionally renounces the use of force as means of settling international disputes.

Tokyo's aggressively defensive posture towards Pyongyang is


indicative of the shift in Japanese foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. In particular, the Yoshida Doctrine, established by Japanese prime minister Shigeru Yoshida in the immediate aftermath of World War II to renounce coercive foreign policy and focus entirely on economic development, appears increasingly passed over by Japan's new leaders.

The doctrine had allowed for the relatively quick mending of political relations with victims of Japanese imperialism and had ensured rapid economic growth that secured Tokyo's prestige and power in the international community. But the Cold War is over and new conditions force the state to adapt or face the consequences.

While the basic posture of pacifism and neutrality is anchored to Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, there are several ways to bypass the law. In recent years, Tokyo has deployed forces abroad, relaxed its self-imposed arms export ban and expanded the capabilities of Japan's armed forces. [1]

While a complete revision of the constitution is unlikely in the near future, Japan's general trend towards rearmament has worrisome implications. Competing interests in the South China Sea could easily escalate into military confrontation and reaction from North Korea will be unpredictable as always.

This move away from the Yoshida Doctrine has been explained as Tokyo's reaction to China's growing political and military assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific. However, threats to Japan have always existed and it will be difficult to quantify exactly the difference between the new security threats emanating from China and North Korea compared with those during the Cold War.

The biggest difference between the worlds of Shigeru Yoshida and present Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is the change in the regional dynamic since the end of the Cold War. The key variable in Japan's policy reorientation is not just the rise of China but mainly the decline of the United States.

The problem is that the Yoshida Doctrine was not born out of idealism. It was a calculated and pragmatic compromise between competing political factions that had interpreted the realities of post-war Japan in several different ways. [2]

Left-leaning politicians and economists wanted a demilitarized state that pursued a neutral foreign policy; right-leaning public figures wanted closer ties with the United States and to suppress communism; meanwhile, everyone wanted to rebuild the country. The optimal compromise was reached to constitutionally adopt an anti-war stance while depending on the United States for security, enabling Tokyo to expend its efforts on reconstruction entirely.

Ever since signing the American-Japanese Security Treaty in 1952, Tokyo has played a delicate balancing game. The United States constantly pressured Japan to take a more active role in the security of the region. Various forces within the country also wanted Japan to become a normal country again (aka for the state to reclaim the right of belligerency). At the same time, there were those who saw entanglement in US foreign policy as hurting Japan's economic interests abroad and some die-hard constitutionalists even saw the self-defense force as a breach of the law. (See East Asian energy dilemma over Iran Asia Times Online, January 24, 2012.)

As long as Washington could provide security for the Japanese archipelago, Tokyo had no reason to seek rearmament. Japanese leaders did attempt to militarize in order to adapt to the needs of the US and maintain close ties. The result was Japan's shift in the 1990s from a home island defense core to a regional security focus.

Under then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, Japan went as far as assisting the US in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 and dispatching forces to Iraq (albeit as a humanitarian mission). However, all of this was before the collapse of the global financial markets in 2008, since when circumstances are vastly changed.

The status of the United States has rapidly shifted from that of an indomitable superpower to international sick man. Defense obligations to South Korea provide one of many examples where Tokyo can see immediate shortfalls in America's capabilities. Under current contingencies against a North Korean invasion, the US promises to dispatch a force to the Korean Peninsula that would be equivalent to the entire size of the US army after budget cuts. [3] These are impossible promises, and despite assurances from Washington the bottom line is that the United States does not have the economic stamina to support operations in East Asia.

Meanwhile, in the economic sector, increasing numbers of economists and observers suggest that Japan is no longer suffering from a recession. [4] Despite the burden of reconstruction after the tsunami of March 2011 and as social welfare costs mount, Tokyo seems to have a fairly manageable situation on its hands. In addition, while economic growth may have slowed, many point out that the relatively low figures may simply be a reflection of how Japanese society has matured demographically. [5]

Surveying the realities around the Asia-Pacific, the basic needs that produced the Yoshida Doctrine are either no longer applicable or can no longer be satisfied via the status quo. Prevailing economic conditions suggest that Japan has a relatively stable economy and that Tokyo could raise the defense budget if it needed to defend the home islands against provocations. In addition, threats to the Japanese economy, such as volatile conditions in the Middle East and China's monopoly over rare-earth metals, are not difficulties that Washington can resolve on Tokyo's behalf.

While current events will not cause an abrupt end to Japan-US relations, Tokyo will ultimately set out to produce its own policies in the region. The assertive call on Pyongyang's satellite launch was an indicator of this imperative. If the current global conditions hold out, one may very well see the return of Japan's active military and diplomatic presence in the world. However, the full ramifications of Tokyo's return may not be evident until long after the coming decades.

1. Japan drops ban on military exports. Reuters, Guardian, December 26, 2011.
2. Richard Samuels. Japan's Grand Strategy. LSE Lecture, October 13, 2008.
3. Bruce Klinger. The Missing Asia Pivot in Obama's Defense Strategy. Heritage Foundation, January 6, 2012.
4. EamonnFingleton. The Myth of Japan's 'Lost Decades.' The Atlantic, February 26, 2011.
5. EisukeSakakibara. "The Anatomy of the International Crisis and Japan's Place in It." Report of the Second Japan-US Joint Public Policy Forum, Woodrow Wilson Center, December 8, 2010.

Yong Kwon is a Washington-based analyst of international affairs.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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