The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

“Normalization” for Japan’s SDF?

November 22, 2005

The Washington Post has an interesting story regardingt the LDP, Japan’s ruling party, and their formal plans to revise the Consitution. These revisions would allow the country to posses a “formal military” for the first time since the end of the second world war. Up till now, Japan has been limited to fielding a “self-defense force” (SDF), an organization that was operationally limited to defending Japan’s home islands as well as taking part in some limited multilateral peacekeeping operations.

So does this portend a more assertive Japan? Will the region become more or less tense?
My own view is that this move is similar (although not identical for important reasons) to what happened in Germany in the mid 1990s. The Basic Law (essentially unified Germany’s constitution) was not changed, however the definition of what constituted ‘self-defense’ was expanded by the constitutional court so as to include multilateral operations outside of Germany’s borders. Some commented at the time that this signaled a ‘normalization’ of Germany’s foreign policy, specifically regarding the right to use force as a tool of diplomacy. This has not been born out to date. Also, given the emphasis on multilateral missions and UN mandates, as well as the fact that Germany was already firmly ‘entangled’ in the various European institutions, this new interpretation did not cause problems for Germany’s regional neighbors (although the bombing operations in Kosovo were without question sensitive for historical reasons–many of you have heard my schpeel on this already), since the signal included further restraints on Germany’s military.

However, the regional dynamics seem much different in Asia, especially with regards to the image even friendly states seem to have (politicians and publics) with regards to Japan. There are great differences between how regional states viewed Germany’s disposition during the debate over the Basic Law and Japan and her neighbors today. Recent public protests by citizens and leaders in both South Korea and China illustrate the legacies of pre-WWII Japanese imperialism. My new collegue Jennifer Lind has written on this issue, specifically with regards to the role of apologies and why tensions remain in Asia but not in Europe. States in Asia are already suspicious of Japan and officially altering the consitution to formally allow a ‘military’ as oppossed to a ‘self-defense force’ is not likely to signal benign intentions. If anything this signal is likely to stoke tensions (along with Prime Minister Kozumi’s continued visists to a shrine to Japan’s war dead, some of which were war criminals).

Additionally, China is likely to be even more perturbed given the recent changes to the US-Japan Security Alliance which for the first time listed security in the Taiwan Straights as a “common strategic objective”. Altering the constitution is seen by many as necessary for Japan to be able to project power in the Straights.

In either case I don’t think this indicates a more ‘aggressive’ Japan, however in speaking to many collegues who either work on or are from Japan the move is indicative of a movement in society to essentially stop paying for the second world war and to have the option of acting militarily in a way that is commensurate with the global economic position. They are also angling for a Security Council seat–a scenario which is unlikely, however the US has insisted that in order for them to consider backing Japan’s bid a revision of Article 9 would be necessary. Long term its hard to say whether Japan will become more assertive militarily as a result of these changes. But I think its safe to say that tensions in the region are likely to rise as a result as other states try to decipher what this signals about Japan and its future aspirations.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.