As Japan confronts future security challenges, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is flexing the nation's military muscle and fanning the flames of regional tension, writes Rikki Kersten.
Geo-political and strategic change in Northeast Asia is forcing Japan to confront some longstanding security dilemmas.
Rising powers in its region, particularly China’s rapidly growing wealth and influence, are combining with a shift in the range of security threats to place these dilemmas into sharp relief.
So while the United States pursues its ‘rebalance’ to the region and implements its global force posture review, the conservative administration of Shinzo Abe is assessing its own security policy options. In doing so, it’s trying to prepare Japanese public opinion for a more assertive and independent security stance.
Japan’s response to this threat environment is itself hostage to difficult domestic circumstances. The nuclear threat from North Korea and the island disputes with China, South Korea and Russia have taken centre stage in Japan at a time of national hypersensitivity.
In the background, Japan’s status as an economic superpower has taken a steady battering as the downturn of the 1990s drags on. Yes, Japan remains the third largest economy in the world, but its trajectory has been downwards, and psychologically this is jarring. A lopsided superpower in the postwar world, Japan has relied on its economic performance to sustain its influence. Abe’s attempts to reflate Japan out of its economic and demographic spiral may be just temporary resuscitation.
This situation is made even more unsettling by the rise of China both as a global economy, and as a military power. Just as Japan has started to look to its US ally for reassurance, Washington has shifted its global posture, upsetting long-held security planning in Japan.
For Japan, the US “rebalance” has been the catalyst for a rethink of the premises of Japan’s postwar security policy. The advent of the second Abe administration in 2012 has accelerated this trend, along with Japan’s deteriorating relationship with China. In fact, Japan’s disagreement with China over the Senkaku Islands has trashed the status quo.
Both Japan and China have been testing the US and the US-led alliance system, as much as they have been testing each other.
If China can expose the reluctance of the US to come to the aid of this ally, then the integrity of the entire US alliance system will come into question.
For Japan, the Senkaku issue is a test of the essential mission of the US-Japan alliance, namely the defence of Japan. This represents a major departure in the dynamics of the alliance: in the past Japan strove to avoid entanglement in US global strategy, but now Japan is singularly focused on entrapping the US in Japan’s own strategic priority.
Some people might assume that the East China Sea predicament is an excellent excuse for the rightist Abe administration to accelerate Japan’s ‘normalisation’ as a military power.
But Abe is caught in what is an increasingly uncomfortable wedge of his own. Abe needs the US security guarantee, especially when facing off against China in its southwestern islands, and when confronting the volatile DPRK nuclear menace.
Abe’s administration wants to exercise Japan’s right to collective self-defence for its own purposes, and not necessarily for the sake of shoring up the US ‘rebalance’ in the region. Abe needs the US to commit unreservedly to Japan, but he does not want to be locked in an embrace that is too tight.
Abe’s second dilemma is one of his own making. China has successfully presented the East China Sea issue as one that evokes Japan’s militaristic, expansionist past.
Abe has poured oil onto the flames by repeatedly engaging in self-sabotage, querying the extent of Japan’s war guilt, its responsibility for atrocities (including the enslavement of ‘comfort women’), and even playing word-games about the ‘true meaning’ of ‘aggression’.
In the process Abe is proving China right about Japan, and alienating the US and other pivotal security partners in Southeast Asia. Worst of all, he is preserving redundant renderings of his country into the 21st century, negating the positive and responsible record of Japan as a postwar nation-state.
Abe’s discordant performance means that while incremental steps towards ‘normalisation’ will occur during his administration, it will not achieve the strategic objectives Japan seeks.
Indeed, it may even undermine their credibility at home as well as abroad.
Abe is proving to be the agent of redundancy, constraining Japan from achieving its desired status as a balanced power that can contribute to peace and stability in the region and beyond.
Professor Rikki Kersten researches international relations, foreign policy and Japanese history at the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
This is an edited extract from a commentary published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs.