Remilitarizing Japan: An Enticing Prospect

By Patrick Balbierz 

Long gone are the days of Japanese military aggression. Generations have passed since the Imperial army of Japan swept across East Asia and bombed the docked ships at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Yet why, in face of an increasingly aggressive China, is Japan still only allowed to maintain defensive forces?

The answer lies in the framing of Japan’s constitution. Article 9 states, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Many argue this prevision was necessary following a series of aggressive maneuvers by the empire of Japan in the 1930s and 40s during WWII which spread across the Philippines, China, Korea, and numerous Pacific islands. Seeking to free the people conquered by the Japanese empire, and to reduce the empire’s strength, the U.S. officials who wrote the new Japanese constitution which included the ever-important Article 9. A fear of a resurgence produced restrictive measures at the time, but current world events beckon a new dramatic shift in this long standing policy.

China recently declared an increase of its military spending by over 12 percent, accelerating an upward trend in spending over the past several years. This announcement followed heated confrontations over the Sekaku islands with Japan, along with fishing and territorial claims with Vietnam and the Philippines. Justin Logan of the Cato Institute noted this could prove to be dangerous, as the United States “has indicated that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are covered by the treaty with Japan, but that we do not take a position on whether they are Japanese. This is too cute by half, and invites misinterpretation and miscalculation.” China seeks to dominate East Asian matters, pitting it against existing powers like Japan. The Chinese military increase is a clear sign of its desire to back up their intentions with force.

Meanwhile, Japan is restricted by the American-authored constitution. The United States has an agreement in which it will defend Japan if attacked, but the reverse is not allowed. If China or North Korea were to launch missiles at the United States, Japan would legally be restrained from acting to prevent the attack. This legal binding is outdated at a time when these threats are possible. 

The U.S. is hoping to reduce defense expenditures as well as the size of its military in the coming year. Following the conclusion of two prolonged ground wars, the U.S. is beginning to focus on high tech options, along with a “pivot towards Asia.” So while there is cause for concern with a rising and ambitious China, why is the U.S. reducing its overall force in face of a looming global challenger to its status? Furthermore, why is the U.S. not shifting the greater military responsibility to Japan to keep the growing Chinese empire in check? Japan spens only 1 percent of its GDP on their military. The U.S. currently spends between 4 and 5 percent; China sits above 2 percent with projections for growth. Logan higlights that while nothing in the U.S. budget reductions are forcing Japan to rebuild its military, “it would be in the U.S. interests to allow them to do so.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has led conservative members of his party in an effort to remilitarize Japan. Acknowledging a growing threat and anxiety over whether the U.S. really would challenge China over a territorial sea dispute far from its own borders, Abe believes Japan is ready to take on a larger role in its defense.

Japanese politicians are not the only ones who believe there is impending conflict with China. Many newspapers within Japan have published articles suggesting that military conflict with China is in the near future, pinpointing 2014 as the start. Citing economic slowdown, ambitious foreign policy, and a desire to reclaim what China views as its lost territories, the Japanese newspapers predict a confrontation pulling the U.S. into the fray. John Kerry recently reiterated the U.S. commitment to Japan in face of the East China Sea dispute, stating, “I…underscored that the United States remains as committed as ever to upholding our treaty obligations with our Japanese allies.” Perhaps the speculative newspapers aren’t far off in their predictions.

The prospect of a remilitarized Japan haunts the region, particularly China. However, the U.S. should utilize the momentum created by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe efforts, and allow Japan to utilize some of its economic strength (it ranked 3rd in GDP in 2012 behind #1 U.S. and #2 China) and share some of the security burden in East Asia. Japan has an extremely capable force for self defense, it will lose influence and security if they simply stand by and watch.

If Japan is to remilitarized, not only would the U.S. release a potential burden both economically and militarily, but it would gain a formidable ally in the growing hostile east Asian theatre. Japan would be an ally capable of utilizing one of the most advancement missile defense system in the world if an attack was launched at the U.S. from the East Asian peninsula. Coupled with a reduction of housing of troops and base expenditures within Japan, the U.S. could meet its reduced military spending goals but also bolster its defense by utilizing Japan’s increased willingness to shoulder the responsibility.

The “pivot to Asia” by the U.S. should focus on both upcoming challengers to its global dominance, but also strengthening relationships with its allies. A remilitarized Japan, despite old fears of aggression could be precisely what the U.S. is looking for in East Asia. Japan could serve as a means of easing the burden of containing a growing and aggressive China, as well as one that could actively defend attacks by a volatile North Korea. The only thing better than an ally is one who, when given the means, can fight alongside you.



Patrick Balbierz is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a graduate student at Seton Hall University.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia]


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