When Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe announced this week that he would be asking the parliament to pass laws revoking the country’s ban on engaging in collective self-defense, it resulted in a predictable gnashing of teeth and wailing both in Japan and abroad. The move, which has been mooted since Abe was first in office, in 2006, simply allows Japanese military forces to come to the aid of allies or innocent parties under attack. Put in the context of Japan’s gradual security evolution over the past several decades, it is neither a radical move nor one that threatens peace in Asia.
Abe has been attacked for his decision from two fronts. At home, large protests have demanded that Japan not become a militarist state that gets sucked into foreign wars. Meanwhile, protestors in South Korea and official voices in China darkly warn that Tokyo is changing the law so as to have a pretext for more aggressive action overseas.
On the face of it, the vituperative reaction speaks volumes about the distrust of Japan still held by many of its citizens and neighbors nearly three-quarters of a century after World War II. Yet given democratic Japan’s track record since the end of the U.S. occupation in the 1950s, such hatred and distrust seems misplaced, at best. Some of it, of course, stems from Japanese governments’ repeated tortuous attempts to obfuscate its share of blame for World War II. It is a logical fallacy, however, to claim that a society and government that fails to fully acknowledge an historical wrong is therefore either condemned to, or intent on, repeating it. Japan today is a largely pacifist nation where strong safeguards act to almost paralyze the government from acting hastily. Indeed, that is one reason why Abe wants to make it easier for his government to act in a crisis.
Viewed from a slightly longer perspective, the announcement on collective self-defense should be seen as part of a gradual evolution of Japanese security policy. Since 1998, when North Korea launched a couple of Taepodong ballistic missiles over the Japanese home islands, the country has steadily improved its defensive capabilities. It is the closest partner for the Pentagon on ballistic-missile defense, and the U.S. Navy and Japanese Self-Defense Force work increasingly closely on testing and development of such systems. The prior, liberal, government went ahead with the decision to buy the F-35 stealth fighter as Japan’s next front-line defense aircraft. Last month, Tokyo and Canberra agreed to work together to develop stealth submarine technology. The country has jettisoned restrictions on selling arms abroad, and Japanese soldiers, sailors, and airmen engage in increasingly sophisticated military exercises with their American allies. Last year, it also released its first national-security strategy, to explain the geopolitical changes propelling such reform.
What this picture reveals is not a country rushing pell mell into an unrestrained and dangerous militarism. Rather, it shows a prudent and gradual modernization of force structure, operating procedures, and doctrine. Japan’s leaders and public know that China’s growing coercion means their far-flung island territories are increasingly vulnerable. North Korea is becoming, if anything, even more unpredictable and dangerous. Nations in Southeast Asia are more interested in working with Japan on security issues.
Abe’s reforms should actually be welcomed, not only in Japan, but in Seoul, as well. Japan, still the world’s third-largest economy, is finally accepting greater responsibility for helping maintain stability in East Asia. Doing so will give Tokyo the experience to think even more broadly than its own interests. Abe must indeed convince the Japanese public that his path is the right one, given the growing uncertainty and instability in Asia. Yet leaders are elected to make such decisions, and if Abe is successful in reorienting Japan’s security policy and gaining a majority of support from the Japanese people, then the country will be on the road to becoming a trusted partner of more nations in Asia. That will lead to greater stability, not less.