Friday, July 11, 2014


My crib sheet for China Radio International panel discussion, later in the day, just in case I fail to get my licks in. (The questions, in italics, are theirs. And yes, they’re having me back.)

What does this historic policy shift mean to Japan? And countries in the region?

(Okumura) For many listeners who are not familiar with the Japan issue, Japan has always been a “normal country”, actually a success story of being the second and then the third largest economy in the world. Why is there the pursuit of more room for military buildup?

I sometimes wonder if Mr. Abe hasn’t done too good a job of selling his national security program, raising expectations or fears depending on the beholder. After years of flat or declining military spending, it is going to go up 2% each year in real terms for five years—then Mr. Abe will be gone, and Japanese military spending will still remain at 1% of GDP, give or take a very small fraction, as it has been doing for ages. No, the real change is coming in Mr. Abe’s outreach to allies and other countries with whom he thinks Japan can engage in productive activities security-wise. That is most evident in the increasingly close ties with Australia. His determination to reinterpret Article 9 of the Japanese constitution to include collective self-defense can be seen in that light: Allowing the Japanese military to play a larger role in joint efforts with its allies—first and foremost the United States—where vital Japanese interests are at stake.

And what’s driving all this? Let’s be honest, it’s China. Let’s say that there are conflicting territorial and other sovereignty-related claims, and none of the parties are willing to yield. In that case, if a state wishes to change the status quo, it has two choices: take the matter to the International Court of Justice, or use force. China already had nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles; now it has an aircraft carrier. It has a massive maritime surveillance fleet. Budgets continue to grow by leaps and bounds. And it is aggressively pushing its claims. Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are feeling the pressure. And Australia worries about its backyard.

(Chinese guest) If you take a look at the Germany and Italy, both defeated like Japan during the WWII, they realized the transformation to become a “normal country” long time ago. Isn’t it natural for Japan to become a normal country? From the point of view of Japan’s neighboring countries, like China and S. Korea, why is that hard to accept?

I’ll leave the conventional arguments to others, and offer a different perspective. There cannot be a starker difference between the reasons for China and South Korea in refusing to accept Japan as a “normal country.”
Take China. Japan is by far the most important security ally of the United States in the Asia-Pacific. Japan is the greatest military asset the United States has there. And it has been positioning itself closer and closer to the United States. If I were Mr. Xi Jinping, I would be very annoyed, and positively alarmed if Japan ever decided to play at the Australian level.
I don’t think that the South Koreans have ever gotten over the fact that it passed from being a subsidiary state of China to a subsidiary state, then territory, of Japan, then a sovereign state, all without putting up any kind of a fight. They would feel much more at ease with a normal Japan if they had been able to beat us to a pulp first.
So China has a real national interest in keeping Japan from becoming “normal” while South Korea has what is essentially a psychological issue that keeps it from accepting something that would actually be in their national interest.

According to Japan’s pacifist constitution, Japan is not allowed to have a national army. But the Self-defense forces are actually the army of the nation. So the normalization process has been started decades ago, right? It seems the normalization has always been about lifting the restraint on the military force? Is that the right impression?

Within reasonable limits, yes, that’s the right impression. Now nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, I think they would be beyond the pale of any reasonable definition of normalcy.

What is a fully normal country, in this case, Japan, like, as currently the US, with a military presence of some 50, 000 troops, enjoys the final say on military matters? When can we call Japan a normal country? When will Japan be accepted as a normal country by China and South Korea?

Actually, one definition of a “normal” country is a country that does its best to convince a more powerful country to do as much of the heavy lifting as possible. People in Japan call that the “Yoshida Doctrine,” but it’s what the Europeans have been doing under the NATO umbrella all these years. In that sense, a “normal country,” at least where the developed countries are concerned these days, is one relying on a US military presence and therefore, as a practical matter, does not have the final say on military matters in its own territory. In that sense, Japan is a normal country. Collective self-defense is part of that normalcy. That should not be a concern for U.S. allies; for U.S. competitors, it should be.


Japanese PM Shinzo Abe took a detour to change the pacifist constitution by “re-interpreting” the war-renouncing articles. Why didn't he amend the constitution directly? Is there enough public support for the re-interpretation?

It’s very simple. He didn’t have the votes in the Diet to put it to the national referendum. As for public support, yes and no. Recent polls show strong majority support for the actual measures that Mr. Abe proposes under the banner of collective self-defense, but there are strong pluralities or majorities against the notion of collective self-defense itself.

When it comes to the opposition to the reinterpretation inside Japan, what’s their major concern?

The unreconstructed pacifist opposition is not the real concern for Mr. Abe. It’s the source of the collective self-dissonance in the people who support the specific and oppose the principle. Win them over completely, and Mr. Abe will have a popular majority. To make a generalization, I think that these people do not see where all this is leading to and are concerned with the fact that there could be more to this story than they’ve been told. And Mr. Abe and the LDP have given people some reason to harbor these concerns. Mr. Abe has his case cut out for him, between now and the 2015 regular Diet session, when he introduces legislation to implement the change. Personally, I believe that institutional constraints, not least the need to keep junior coalition partner Komeito onside, will keep any Japanese prime minister within very strict boundaries, but I only count for one vote.

What does the move mean exactly? Sending troops overseas to the help of US, an ally, and countries with close relationship with Japan, like the Philippines and Vietnam?

In short, no. Protecting foreign ships carrying Japanese citizens from war zones, clearing mines along vital sea lanes while allies do the real fighting, and anything else concrete that the Abe regime can convince Komeito to accept. My advice to people on all sides of this issue? Don’t make Komeito angry.


One of the concern people have is, in the wake of the reinterpretation, what’ll be next steps? Will there be gradual steps toward a final abandonment of the pacifist constitution? 

Everything depends on external factors. The greater the threat, the greater the momentum to relax the interpretation and, eventually, to amend the Constitution.

There’s fear in China at least that militarism in Japan may rise again. How likely is that scenario? Is that an overestimate of the current situation in Japan?

Japan has one tenth the population of China, spends 1% of an economic output that is smaller than China’s, and does not have nuclear weapons or effective means of their delivery. What the Chinese have to fear is a weak, isolated Japan, abandoned by the United States and feeling threatened, that decides to become North Korea on steroids. Now that’s a very low-probability outcome. But you asked for a scenario where militarism rises again in Japan.

Japan has been in close contact with the Philippines and Vietnam, both of which have territorial disputes with China. Is it likely that, following the reinterpretation, Japan may be able to build a loose military alliance with the two countries against China

It depends on what you mean by “loose military alliance,” and what China chooses to do. Would Japan selling coast guard patrol boats to Vietnam and the Philippines qualify as a “loose military alliance”? Most likely not. Would Japan and Australia selling jointly-developed submarines to those two nations qualify? Now the story begins to pick up. But that’s a good number of years in the future, and much depends on how China decides to deploy its military and quasi-military powers over the long-run. In the meantime, Russia is the one selling submarines to Vietnam.


Will there be an arms race in East Asia as a result of the new Japanese move? Will the still strong trade ties among countries be affected by their dispute? (China-Japan and that between S.Korea and Japan?) 

No. Will China’s military expenditures go up even more rapidly? I doubt it. Will South Korea’s? I doubt it. South Korea will buy anything from the United States that Japan does, but that’s the case regardless of the reinterpretation. And no, the trade ties will not be affected. Tourism is already down significantly, consumer purchases may be slightly affected, and Japanese firms may have a harder time securing government business in China, but I suspect that that’ll be it, at most.

Chinese President Xi Jinping paid it a visit to South Korea and the visit has been partly read as an effort by Beijing and Seoul in response to the Japanese move. What’s your take on that?

There are political benefits. And commercial ones too, for South Korea, I’ll wager. But remember, the greater geopolitical bone of contention in East Asia remains the future of North Korea. On that, China and South Korea can only share short-to-medium-term, tactical interests, if that.

The United States has been one of the countries that have welcomed the Japanese defense policy change. What’s their justification?

And everybody else in East and Southeast Asia except China and South Korea. And the bread crumbs leads right back to Beijing. Whether you agree with the legitimacy of the concerns or not, it’s the reality that China has to deal with.

The Strategic and Economic Dialogue between China and the US has just concluded in Beijing. How much a factor is Japan in Sino-US ties?

Japan is the most important ally of the United States in the Asia-Pacific. China cannot push Japan too far without incurring serious US resistance. To put it another way, how much of a factor is the Unites States in Japan-China ties? Very much, is what.


Japanese PM Abe has said his door is open to dialogue. But with the latest move, the hope for a summit meeting between Chinese and Japanese leaders can’t be even further. Do you have expectation of the upcoming APEC meeting later this year in Beijing?

There are actually two factors that still pull in favor of an informal summit, a chat on the sidelines. China is the host. To refuse to see Mr. Abe would make Mr. Xi look small and defensive. Second, China appears to be concentrating its guns on Vietnam, which, unlike Japan and the Philippines, does not have the United States as an ally. Yet. An implicit offer of a truce from Mr. Xi to Mr. Abe might be in the works.

Both Japan and Germany were defeated in Second World War. But Germany has managed to win the trust and respect from its neighbors, while Japan remains embroiled in constant denial of history. Is there anything Japan may learn from Germany?

That it helps to be the biggest fish in the pond when all is said and done? The histories are so different that the comparison favored by so many conventional commentators merely clouds the picture. But I’ll say this. We Japanese see modern history through the lens of the Black ships rolling in, making demands, and Japan’s response to that. But for the Chinese, the Opium War is the seminal event, which I think is also a perfectly legitimate perspective. This means that the Japan-China War in 1894-95 has very different meanings for the two sides. But World War I changed the rules of the game for all the Great Powers except two: Japan and Germany. If the two nations could accept that the other side will have different narratives with regard to the Japan-China War and Japan reiterates its acceptance of responsibility for its post-WW I actions on that premise, then we will have gone a long way to solving the problem. I don’t think that Mr. Abe is there yet, much less Mr. Xi.

As it is said, we can’t change our neighbors, like it or not. At the end of the day, we need to come to terms with each other. Where to start if we still have hope to mend the fences and fix the problems between countries?

I already gave my views about modern history. Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that we Japanese always revered China. Japan is now the only country outside of China and Taiwan that actively uses Chinese characters, teaches Chinese literature as part of our compulsory classic education, and uses Chinese motifs in much of our historical and fantasy anime. And we adore Jackie Chan. Don’t let that affinity borne out of deep history go to waste

No comments: