Tag Archives: South China Sea

Japan’s Fistfights and Foreign Wars

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe campaigning for defense policy changes

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe campaigning for defense policy changes

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been an unabashed advocate for changes in Japan’s defense policy, seeking the goal for his country what he calls “proactive pacifism.” Increased regional tensions, most notably with China, and internal political posturing have fueled the fire for a more outwardly minded Japanese military. A key change is underway with the ‘reinterpretation’ of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution of 1947, which states:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.  

The above renunciation of war has been in effect for over 70 years, and Abe proclaimed that within the framework of Article 9 Japan has the right to collective self-defense, which includes engagement in the defense of an ally. Controversial legislation that is set to pass resulted in a physical scuffle on the floor of the National Diet, Japan’s parliament, but has failed to reverse the inevitable. The new set of bills are expressed in a way that allow for the government justify the use of combat action abroad for the first time since World War II. Abe states that it will give Japan a more “normal” position militarily, while his detractors have voiced fears of being co-opted into American combat intervention overseas. While the Prime Minister and his coalition have the votes on their side, some opinion polls say only 30% of Japanese surveyed support the change and large public protests have dogged the proceedings.

A physical scuffle broke out on the floor of the Japanese Parliament

A physical scuffle broke out on the floor of the Japanese Parliament

Due to the restrictions of the constitution and Article 9, Japan has for decades relied heavily on its alliance with the US for defense while becoming very accustomed to the American military presence. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) are expressly prohibited from conducting combat missions, and according to recent statistics they amount to one-sixth the size of North Korea’s armed forces and approximately a tenth the size of China’s.

Japan’s defense budget increased in 2013 for the first time in 11 years, and has increased every year since in a reversal of trend that has gained both significant traction and provoked worried criticism. Additionally, beginning in 2013 Abe was instrumental in the successful adoption of a five-year plan to procure new military hardware and capabilities, including drones and amphibious assault vehicles. While still paling in comparison to the defense budgets of China or the United States, the move has drawn ire from the former yet welcome from the latter.

China has openly and harshly criticized Japan’s new laws, with the official Xinhua news agency arguing,Japan‘s military stance has potentially become more dangerous as its hawkish and historical revisionist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now holds an active war button following the country’s parliament in the early hours of Saturday enacting laws that could usher Japan into war again for the first time in 70 years.” On the other hand, many US and UK officials applauded the move towards more international assistance and a greater Japanese role in global peacekeeping operations.

Japanese and American armed forces in joint exercises

Japanese and American armed forces in joint exercises

So far unfettered by a critical China, Abe’s moves away from strict pacifism will test the regional relationship further over time. Japan will likely use the changes as a bargaining chip on the strategic table, especially regarding the South China Sea, Senkaku Islands, and perhaps even North Korea. The US now has a unique opportunity to scale back its forces to let Japan reassert its own military future, but it should also seek to resolve conflict with both Japan and China on the diplomatic table simultaneously.

Ambiguity in the new military laws will be a testing point of contention domestically for Japan, and any foreign military action will almost assuredly come with more protests and demonstrations. Japanese defense policy is set to change in a way that will usher in a new chapter for Japanese relations abroad, and it must navigate carefully if it wishes to achieve new regional and global goals.

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Testing the Waters of the Senkaku Islands

Japanese plane flying by Uotsuri-shima, the largest of the Senkaku Islands

Japanese plane flying by Uotsuri-shima, the largest of the disputed islands

Referred to as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, a small cluster of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea have been a serious source of contention in the region since the 1970s. The historical claims to this area that encompasses only seven square kilometers date back to the 14th century according to the Chinese claim, and the late 19th century via Japanese incorporation and later administration. Taiwan also lays claim to the island group and refers to them as the Diaoyutai Islands, though their stake has been less incisive. Located southwest of the Ryukyu Island chain of Japan, northeast of Taiwan, and southeast of China, the islands are important today because of nearby oil reserves, busy shipping lanes, and regional power projection. Outright control of the islands would signal a key strategic loss for the opposing side, and thus there have been many incursions both directly and indirectly to test the waters.

Map of the Senkaku/Diayotu

Map of the Senkaku/Diayotu

The debate over the islands is most importantly reflective of the greater battle for regional influence between China and Japan. In 2010, a Chinese fishing vessel’s skipper was detained by Japanese Coast Guard officials prompting a diplomatic crisis. After initially refusing to set the skipper free, China ceased exportation of rare earth minerals to Japan and Japan capitulated by releasing the sailor. The fiery incident was short-lived, but the escalated tensions persisted in the aftermath.

In 2012 the Japanese government further asserted its control over the islands via purchasing and nationalizing three of the islands from their private Japanese owner for over $16 million dollars. In response Beijing released a scathing criticism denouncing the move and reiterating their own claim. That year also saw a wave of official proclamations from high ranking officials on both sides noting the importance of how the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands were integral to the sovereignty of their countries.

The Japanese in 2012 and Chinese in 2014 both launched websites purporting their respective justifications for the reasoning behind their claims. According to the magazine The Diplomat, in early 2015 both countries were quietly posturing around the islands in a sign of military buildup, which included the construction of a new Chinese base that could potentially be used for greater military readiness. An official from the US Naval Institute concluded after analyzing the situation that China may perform a “short, sharp war” against Japan to snatch the islands quickly. Furthermore, nationalist rhetoric surrounding the claims has increased the stakes and brought greater attention in East Asia to the sparring factions.

Japanese protestors

President Obama in 2014 clarified the US stance supported the Japanese claim, declaring that the Senkakus are covered by the US-Japanese bilateral security treaty. While Japan has de facto administered the islands for decades, the Chinese claim contains more historical justification behind it. In a way the controversy is similar to how Beijing politically approaches Taiwan: it would undermine their authority to recognize anything other than the stance they have held on to for so long. Likewise, Japan sees the islands as a symbolic possession that they would be devastated to lose. Regardless of the justification behind the ownership or control of the islands, their significance comes because they are at the crux of Japanese and Chinese foreign policy goals. 

Chinese protestors

In the time of a geopolitically rising China, the controversies over such islands as the Senkaku and similar areas, such as the Spratly Islands, are microcosms of how relations between China and its neighbors will play out. If China continues to become more aggressive, as it has in the past few years in response to Japanese saber-rattling and the positioning of resources around key shipping lanes, both its neighbors and the world at large should take note. As was seen by the Russian action in Crimea, there are definite benefits and consequences to flexing strength near strategic points. It should come as no surprise that the Senkaku Islands will continue to play a unique role in the South China Sea.

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