Late in June Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan would modify its military policy to make contributions to collective defense permissible. In the past, the “peace constitution” has been interpreted to prohibit anything but direct self-defense, which is why the Japanese military is the Self-Defense Force. Mr. Abe outlined four possible scenarios for such action, including assisting the United States against both ballistic-missile attack and strikes on U.S. warships.
The idea of collective defense goes much further. It might include the creation of a Far Eastern defense organization of like-minded governments. The Japanese have already decided that they can sell arms to countries not engaged in war. The combination of Mr. Abe’s declaration and the arms-sales decision could enable Japan to build a kind of Far Eastern NATO. That would not be irrational for the Japanese, considering that Japan depends heavily on seaborne traffic, much of it moving through South Asian waters.
Bearing a Greater Burden
For some time, proponents of a more active Japanese military stance have pointed out that modern technology makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish between offense and defense, and between defense mounted entirely from Japanese soil and collective defense in more forward areas. For example, many of North Korea’s missiles seem to be aimed at Japan as much as at South Korea. However effective a Japanese missile-defense shield may be, attacking some of these missiles at the source might be a valuable form of defense.
Similarly, Japan relies on seaborne imports for her survival. Convoy operations may seem to be the appropriate form of defense, but it is not clear that they would be entirely effective against fast nuclear submarines. In that case, the best defense might be to attack the enemy’s submarines closer to their bases. Would such operations be offensive or defensive? If Japan’s U.S. ally were conducting them, would Japanese participation be appropriate or even necessary? As Chinese military power grows, at what point should Japan take up more of the burden for measures that ultimately protect her?
The U.S. government, which has long hoped that Japan would take a more active role in defending the Far East, applauded Abe’s action. Japan is already involved in the U.S. ballistic-missile defense program, and Japanese ships have participated in maneuvers alongside the U.S. Navy. The Japanese have also provided valuable logistical support in areas such as the Middle East. Japanese policy has gradually expanded the definition of direct defense of the country. For example, Japan accepted that maritime defense had to extend out to at least 1,000 nautical miles, and that in turn justified the construction of helicopter-carrying destroyers, the latest of which are clearly helicopter (and perhaps short-takeoff/vertical-landing aircraft-capable) carriers. A realist contemplating the Chinese navy would have to point out that the potential threat to Japanese shipping includes missile-carrying bombers as well as submarines. During the Cold War the U.S. Navy concluded that missile-armed surface ships were not enough to deal with the analogous Soviet threat. Carrier-borne fighters were essential. Japan may be edging toward building carriers. Would they be offensive or defensive? Is the distinction meaningful?
The Chinese were predictably furious at Mr. Abe’s announcement. Japan is the only Far Eastern country that has the resources to stand up to China’s growing military machine. If economics were the sole determinant in forming alliances, and if only a Chinese threat mattered, Japan would become the core of a Far Eastern alliance including India, Australia, and South Korea. Early in the Cold War the U.S. government tried to create a Pacific equivalent of NATO anchored around Japan. In fact, Japan was and is proportionately far more powerful in the Far East than Germany was and is in Europe. The idea failed because proposed alliance members (Australia and the Philippines) were more worried about a resurgent Japan than the apparently more abstract threats posed by Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Even South Korea, which really had felt the effects of Communist aggression, was unwilling to join with its former occupier. The brutalities of the past were just too close. As recently as 2012, the ROK leadership found that popular pressure blocked an agreement to share intelligence with Japan. The South Korean government was notably unhappy at Mr. Abe’s announcement.
A Violent History
The problem lies in the past, and in the uses different governments make of it. By the end of World War II, the Japanese were saying that they had fought a just war to liberate Asia from Western colonialism. Many of those they had “liberated” fared rather badly during the war; the Japanese were at least as brutal as those they displaced. However, when the war ended, in some areas the Japanese handed over power to anti-colonial movements. They can, for example, take considerable credit for the emergence of Indonesia and Vietnam as independent countries.
This just-war message is displayed in detail at Yasukuni, the Japanese war memorial. Those victimized by Japan during the war find this less than palatable. Wartime Japanese brutality may be explainable by the exigencies of combat, but Koreans remember 40 years of Japanese colonial rule, culminating in horrific atrocities. In recent years they have been particularly infuriated by Japanese refusal to apologize for the forced prostitution of hundreds of thousands of Korean women.
The Chinese situation is no happier. World War II in the Far East began with Japanese invasions of Manchuria and then of China proper. In China, the Japanese committed numerous atrocities, beginning with the Rape of Nanking. Ultimately the war cost at least 15 million Chinese lives. The struggle against Japan holds particular significance for the current Chinese Communist government. It has long used the war as a unifying national theme, claiming that the Communists were particularly effective in resisting the Japanese. Chinese nationalism, as symbolized by the fight against Japan, has been promoted actively in the quarter-century since the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It does not help that Prime Minister Abe has visited Yasukuni (despite U.S. government advice not to do so). The Japanese argue that Yasukuni is a privately run museum and shrine, hence does not reflect official policy.
It seems unlikely that the Japanese will retreat under Chinese pressure. Presumably China is looking for ways to preclude the formation of a Japanese-led anti-Chinese alliance. They may see South Korean hatred for Japan as a valuable fulcrum. At one time, South Korea felt dependent on the United States to stave off the North Koreans. Given their very considerable economic strength, they are increasingly independent-minded. For example, for years U.S. policy was deliberately to limit the ranges of South Korean missiles, for fear that the South Koreans might turn their attention to their old enemy, Japan. In recent years the South Koreans have broken free of U.S.-sponsored limits. In 2015 South Korea is to take over command of the joint U.N. (mainly Korean and U.S.) force in that country. Reportedly the South Koreans are developing a preemptive concept called “Kill Chain,” which they see as a deterrent against a North Korean attack. Anyone looking at the possibility of a Chinese-South Korean alignment might ponder the July visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to Seoul without any visit to Pyongyang. In the past, whenever Chinese presidents have visited Seoul, they have been careful to visit North Korea first.
What should we do? We certainly do not want the Chinese to run us out of the Far East. We must reassure our friends in this vast area. We typically imagine that countries are either on our side, neutral, or hostile. That omits the possibility, which the Korean and Japanese cases illustrate so well, that countries friendly with us may wish to erase each other. How do we sustain a necessary degree of power in an area without being crippled by local enmities?
Air-Sea Battle proposals often include dispersal of U.S. ground-based combat aircraft throughout the Far East so that they are difficult to destroy on the outbreak of war. That may or may not be a very good idea. For example, dispersed aircraft entail disproportionately high support costs. Modern ground bases are not so easy to conceal, and they don’t move at high speed. What typically is not taken into account is the politics of such dispersal. Placing military assets on someone else’s soil requires permission, and host governments can exercise a veto on operations undertaken from those bases.
Perhaps it is time to remember that our naval forces are sovereign territory, from which strikes of any kind can be mounted without someone else’s permission. Carrier strike groups are hardly inexpensive, but we should recall the history of governments denying us the use of bases on their territory. Again and again our experience has been that once we show that we can act unilaterally, other governments (in whose interest it would be to act) decide to join us. That was certainly the case during both Gulf Wars. When we applaud Mr. Abe’s initiative to join in collective defense, it’s best to understand that he may see participation as valuable leverage. To the extent that he provides essential support, he can help decide what we can and cannot do. The same might be said of others in the region, such as the South Koreans.