Japan’s New Military Role: Troubling but Inevitable

On September 19, the Japanese Parliament passed a bill authorizing Japanese troops to fight overseas. This marks the first time since the end of the World War II that Japan will have the ability to place troops outside of their own country. With 148 votes for and 90 against, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s majority party easily passed the bill through the upper house. This vote followed almost 200 hours of debate, including an ironic fistfight between lawmakers for and against the continuation of Japan’s 70 year pacifist run. According to Prime Minister Abe, the Japanese “need to play a more active role in the alliance [with the United States] in order to strengthen it against threats like the growing military power in China.”[1] However, with the events of the Second World War still fresh in the minds of some of the population, many are wary of the changes and see them as the beginning of the slippery slope into “Iraq-style” conflicts.

Image Courtesy of Stuart Rankin, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Image Courtesy of Stuart Rankin, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Since the end of the Second World War and the subsequent occupation by the United States, the mandate of the Japanese military, in whatever form, has been that of pure self-defense. In the past decade, however, China has been pouring resources into its military, heightening tensions between the two powers. In addition, conflict has arisen over the ownership of small islands in the South China Sea, which both countries claim as their own. This new bill and initiative by the Japanese government seems to be a clear response to perceived acts of Chinese aggression, allowing Japan to better cooperate with her allies abroad and have the ability to use military action if necessary.

From a purely Realist geopolitical perspective, this shift from a pacifist narrative seems inevitable. With an anemic economy and an aging population, the Japanese must do something to reassert their place in the international sphere. As the resources of the United States are being stretched on all corners of the globe, the Japanese cannot afford to sit idle in the face of such influential opposition as China. From a moralistic and historical approach, however, these quick and decisive changes seem to undo a lifetime of forced pacifism that was the consequence of the atrocities committed before and during the Second World War. Can these actions be so quickly forgotten? Are the parameters of realpolitik so strong that they transcend history as soon as politicians are no longer of the age that they can remember the 1930’s and 1940’s? These are both questions that, while necessary and important, seem begrudgingly futile in light of the escalation of hostilities within the South China Sea.

A potentially bigger issue, however, is how this development will impact the already strained relations between Japan and China. From both a geopolitical and historical perspective, the Chinese seem right to be concerned with Japan’s new overseas capabilities. After all, it was the Chinese who bore the brunt of the casualties from Japan’s imperialist past. They cannot, however, escape blame for expediting this progression. The island building in the South China Sea is a clear tactic to increase influence in the region and it is in the best interest of the United States to place Japan as the buffer against this expansion. As reported by the New York Times last month, China has been using sediment from the ocean floor to build on top of reefs to create military bases. These bases include military barracks, fully-functioning airstrips, and deep harbors for warships. According to the Times, China’s efforts in the South China serve “to fortify its territorial claims” and will “enable sustained Chinese air and sea patrols of the area.”[2] The specific islands in question are the Spratly Islands, of which many are claimed by multiple countries. With the creation of new islands, the Chinese are conducting a de facto territorial encroachment on multiple surrounding nations, including Japan. As reported by the Guardian, the shipping routes within the South China Sea are vital energy shipping channels, with ships carrying “more than 15 million barrels of oil a day, including 80% of Chinese and Japanese supplies.”[3] This means that with its territorial gains, China is putting itself into an even better position to have power over vital trade routes into Japan.

It seems, then, that the Asian Pacific powers are heading straight into an arms race with the United States as the clear beneficiary of a stronger Japan and South Korea. In turn, this Japanese progression from the position of a neutral arbiter to a more pro-western military actor will increase tensions between the United States and China. This type of localized arms races seem at best threatening and at worst the possible root cause of future wars and/or proxy wars. For now, it seems, a realpolitik view of the changing power struggle in Asia has won over pacifism. It was inevitable from the standpoint that the West was never going to allow China to pursue its own military ambitions unchecked. It is the check provided by an overseas Japanese military, however, that could cause more problems than it stops. Needless to say, heightening military tensions between the second and third largest economies in the world are cause for great concern. In addition, the fact that this development is being treated as an inevitability by the United States and others is worrying, and should be cause for questioning over the pre-conceived notions of international politics as a whole.

In conclusion, the authorization of Japanese forces to be used overseas shows how influential realpolitik still is in political debate and action as well as how important the South China Sea is in current geopolitics. What is problematic about this situation, however, is that it seems impossible that this change does not increase tensions between China and Japan. With historical precedent between the two countries as well as expansionary policies now being employed by the Chinese, the South China Sea is one of the most potentially volatile places on the globe. Whether the Japanese Parliament was “right” or “wrong” in making the change, all must agree that diplomatic resolutions are needed to prevent future atrocities from taking place.

[1] http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-backs-japans-new-military-expansion-but-china-concerned-1442644956

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/30/world/asia/what-china-has-been-building-in-the-south-china-sea.html?_r=0

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/may/30/us-defense-chief-ash-carter-says-chinas-island-building-erodes-security