Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff Mike Mullen reviews Self Defense Force troops in Tokyo, Japan
After weeks of contentious debate, vigorous civilian protest, and stiff political opposition, a set of controversial security laws passed the Upper House of the Japanese Diet on September 19th, already having passed the Lower House in July, handing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) a twofold victory. First, it effectively overturned Article Nine of the Japanese constitution, which forbade the existence of a standing military and plans to wage offensive war — Japan is now allowed to rearm and engage in military operations on behalf of its allies’ defenses. Second, it increased Japan’s commitment to the US-Japan defense alliance, resulting in additional defense spending allocations and a more active deployment of Self Defense Force (SDF) troops in outposts and neighboring allies.
Japan’s rearmament finds its roots in a long and murky political history. In 1926, Emperor Hirohito’s ascendancy to the throne led to an increase in ultra-nationalistic tendencies, which eventually transformed into aggressive imperialism and a desire for regional dominance, as was demonstrated in the 1937 provocations with China that led to the Sino-Japanese war and further invasions of the Dutch-East Indies and British Hong Kong in 1941. Post World War II defeat, however, Japan’s military capabilities were removed and codified as an illegal means of solving disputes through Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution. Although the Self Defense Forces, a peacetime paramilitary force, were established in 1954, rearmament has been seen as a sort of taboo within both Japanese lawmaking and society due to the fear of a reversion back to the imperialist tendencies displayed earlier.
However, recent security problems have brought the issue of rearmament back to the national spotlight. Beginning in 2012, Chinese naval encroachment into the Japanese-claimed Senkaku Islands has been on a steady uprise, and a lack of force projection by the Japanese could indicate weakness and encourage further encroachments. On the other side of the globe, two Japanese nationals were beheaded by the terrorist group ISIS in January 2015 — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not able to offer much retaliation other than a verbal condemnation of the group and increased humanitarian aid to the region. Thus, the question arises: does Japanese rearmament properly solve Japan’s security problem or does it ultimately cause more harm than good?
To begin judging the effects of Japan’s rearmament, one can gauge the reactions of Japan’s neighbors. Without a doubt, the rearmament has caught the eyes of every major regional power in East Asia. In October 2013, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se announced, “There are many countries including us that are worried about Japan’s rearmament. A situation where [we] overlook Japan’s rearmament will not come.” Having succumbed to Japanese aggression and brutal colonialism in the early 20th century, the historical memory of South Korea shows a heavy societal and political disfavor toward any Japanese military capabilities. The closest effect of Japan’s rearmament may therefore be a significant decrease in relations between the two previously allied countries.
While South Korea’s reaction may be purely diplomatic, rearmament may start a deeper provocation in two other countries: China and North Korea. Earlier this year, China’s foreign ministry released a powerfully worded statement condemning a Japanese defense white paper asking for appropriate increases in defense spending to combat the “China military threat.” The statement reads, “This kind of action completely lays bare the two-faced nature of Japan’s foreign policy and has a detrimental impact on peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region” and that China would implement a “necessary reaction depending on the situation.” China has reiterated this threat multiple times, most recently by accompanying President Xi Jinping’s speech slamming Japanese aggression on September 3rd with a massive military parade through Beijing. Perceiving South Korea and the United States as key advocates for Japan’s endangering of North Korean national security, North Korea entered the fray with threats of escalation as well.
In 2013, North Korean state media stated that ”The prevailing situation calls upon all Koreans to decisively smash the Japanese reactionaries’ attempt to exercise the right which has become undisguised under the backstage wire-pulling of the U.S. and the South Korean regime’s criminal collusion and nexus to help them.” Although both China’s and North Korea’s threats may only seem to be threatening rhetoric, their credibility and immediacy are both advanced by a real and publicized development in Japanese military capabilities. Backlash from either the economic and military superpower of China or the rogue military state of North Korea may lead to a fatal escalation of regional tensions that already lie on the brink — ultimately doing more harm than good to Japan’s security.
For Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling LDP party, the development of a military beyond the Self Defense Forces may seem to be a proper defense against regional tensions as of late. However, after examining other countries’ reactions to the newly passed security laws, a definite conclusion can be drawn that Japan’s rearmament only exacerbates those tensions and further endangers Japanese security.
Tony Zhou is a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in Economics and Philosophy and minoring in International Relations.
Image attribution: “Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen reviews Japanese Self Defense Force troops” by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy, licensed under CC0 1.0