The Japanese Parliament just approved legislation which reinterprets Japan’s constitution and fundamentally changes the way Japan uses its military. Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, drawn up by the U.S. after World War II, prohibits the so-called collective self-defense by the Japanese defense forces. In other words, Article 9 specifically prohibits the Japanese military to fight jointly with any other country under any circumstances. The new legislation just passed by the Japanese Parliament removes this constraint and the Japanese military can now defend its allies even if Japan is not attacked. More importantly, if Japan is attacked (for example by China), the U.S. military can rush to the rescue and fights jointly with the Japanese forces.
How and why did this happen? I think there are three main reasons that facilitated the passing of this new legislation; (1) the rise of China, (2) the rise of conservative sentiment and nationalism in Japan, and (3) the U.S. wants to utilize Japan to counter and contain the rise of China. The last reason is the most important.
The first reason is the rise of China. For the past 70 years, Japan has operated successfully under its pacifist constitution and prospered to become the number two economic power in the world until several years ago when China's economy overtook that of Japan. The rapid economic growth of China is unprecedented and surprised every country in the world. Japan is very concerned and worried about China's rise because China and Japan were bitter enemies in the first half of the 20th century. Japan brutally invaded China, killed tens of millions of Chinese and occupied a large portion of China during and before World War II. How would you feel if your former enemy, which was brutally treated by you, is now stronger than you?
The second reason is that conservative sentiments and nationalism are rising in Japan. It elected an ultra-conservative leader, Shinzo Abe, to be its Prime Minister. Abe wants to restore Japan to its past glory and his party controls both the upper and the lower houses of the Parliament.
But the fear of China and the rise of conservative sentiments do not suffice to alter the interpretation of the constitution. Even though China is stronger now than it was, Japan's security is not threatened because it is still under the protection of the mighty U.S. military. The real reason for Japan to pass the new legislation is that the U.S. wants to contain China. Without the approval and support of its protector, the United States, the Japanese Parliament could not have passed the new legislation.
Japan is not a normal country. Its constitution was drawn up by the U.S. So far, Japan followed every step of the U.S. after the U.S. defeated Japan in 1945. The U.S. still has the largest number of its overseas troops stationed in Japan, even though the cold war ended more than twenty years ago. The rapid growth of China over the last 30 years alarmed U.S. policy makers because it might threaten the U. S. hegemony in the western Pacific. In 2011, the Obama administration announced the new policy of the "pivot to Asia". It was a shift from the long-held policy of engagement to “congagement” (containment and engagement). Shortly after the announcement of the "pivot to Asia", the Japanese government announced that it had nationalized the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. This was done, of course, with the approval of the U.S. even though Washington knew very well that tension would increase between China and Japan in the East China Sea. The U.S. also beefed up its military alliance with Japan, Australia, and the Philippines in order to contain China. Tension between China and Japan indeed escalated over the Diaoyu Islands and there were constant skirmishes near these islands. In further support of Japan on the Diaoyu Islands, the U.S. announced that these islands are under the protection of the U.S.-Japan alliance treaty even though Washington takes no position on the sovereignty of these islands. If these islands are attacked by the Chinese, the U.S. stated that it is obligated to come to Japan’s defense jointly with the Japanese forces.
But when the U.S. reviewed the U.S.-Japan alliance, it realized that the Japanese constitution (Article 9) specifically prohibits collective defense. This was one of the issues raised in a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled, "The U.S.-Japan Alliance". CSIS is a prominent American think tank. It is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. The report was issued in August 2012 (shortly after the announcement of the policy of the "pivot to Asia") and authored by Richard L. Armitage and Joseph S. Nye. Armitage was the Deputy Secretary of State under President George W. Bush and Nye was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs under President Bill Clinton. In this report, Armitage and Nye wrote, "The irony, however, is that under the most severe conditions requiring the protection of Japan’s interests, our forces are legally prevented from collectively defending Japan. A change in Japan’s prohibition of collective self-defense would address that irony in full." The report also noted that "Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (JSDF)—now the most trusted institution in Japan—are poised to play a larger role in enhancing Japanese security and reputation if anachronistic constraints can be eased." The "anachronistic constraints" are indeed referring to Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, prohibiting collective self-defense.
Therefore, Prime Minister Abe's decision to reinterpret the constitution was not only supported by conservative groups in Japan but also supported and encouraged by Washington. Without the support of the U.S., it would be difficult for the Japanese Parliament to pass the new legislation. The report also made many recommendations to further enhance the U.S.-Japan alliance and contain China. These recommendations (such as joint patrols in the South China Sea, intelligence sharing, enhancing military cooperation, encouraging the Japanese defense industry to export technology not only to the United States, but to other allies such as Australia, etc.) are either being implemented or planned. The U.S. Congress appears to endorse most of the recommendations of the CSIS report. In Washington, leaders of Senate committees overseeing U.S. defense and foreign policy welcomed the legislation's passage, saying it would contribute to international peace and security and strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance. "We welcome a larger role for Japan in regional and global security affairs and look forward to our country working with Japan to implement these new measures," the Republican and Democratic committee leaders said in a joint statement shortly after the passage of the legislation by the Japanese Parliament.
It is becoming quite clear that the U.S. is relying more on Japan to counter the rise of China and to further contain China. It is doing so because Washington felt that, since the great recession of 2008, the U.S. economy is growing slowly by about 2% a year compared to 7-10% a year for China. Because of economic constraints, the U.S. defense budget remained flat for the last few years while China saw a double-digit increase in its defense budget every year. China is modernizing its military rapidly and the gap in military capability between the U.S and China is shrinking. The current trend is not in favor of the U. S. Furthermore, even though the U.S. still maintains superiority in its military capability over China, geographic reality makes it difficult to contain China because the U.S. is not an Asian country. Besides, the U.S. also has to deal with problems in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East and Russia. It is natural for the U.S. to utilize Japan to counter and contain China.
In the short run, Washington may benefit from this policy because it can claim that China is contained and U.S. hegemony is maintained in the western Pacific. I do, however, question the long term wisdom of this containment policy. Now China's GDP is about 60 percent of that of the U.S. Ten years from now, China's GDP will be very close to that of the U.S. This trend is not stoppable, irrespective of whether the containment policy is successful or not. It is of paramount importance for the U.S. to develop and build a peaceful and friendly relationship with China. The containment policy will definitely move the U.S.-China relations in the wrong direction. Even the CSIS report by Armitage and Nye acknowledged that "We all have much to gain from a peaceful and prosperous China". Building a peaceful and friendly relationship takes time and it needs to start now. It is inevitable that China will become a global power, but it doesn’t follow that confrontation rather than cooperation and partnership is the best logical course.
The report by Armatage and Nye is entitled, "The U.S.-Japan Alliance". It also has a subtitle, "anchoring stability in Asia". The main assumption of this report is that by enhancing the alliance of U.S. and Japan against China, stability can be maintained in Asia. This assumption is flawed because it unnecessarily considers China as an adversary or potential enemy. This kind of thinking also implies that it is a zero-sum game between China and the U.S. (Beijing's gain is Washington's loss or vice versa). It may lead to a new cold war which no one wants to see. There is a better alternative in anchoring stability in Asia. It is to fully engage China. What could be more important than a peaceful and friendly relationship between the U.S. and China in anchoring stability in Asia? I might add: what could be more important than a peaceful and friendly relationship between the U. S. and China in anchoring the stability of the world?