Japan reawakens: the forgotten superpower reasserts itself.
November 12, 2017
The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, won a resounding landslide in his early General Election in October. The gambit worked very well for him. It could significantly impact the world in the future.
The Japanese are now on the path to ending their post-war obsession with pacifism. The process of amending the constitution so that Japan can fully rearm can slowly get underway. Japan is too frequently overlooked amidst media hype about the rise of China and India, although that may not be the case for much longer. With a cutting edge military, dynamic infrastructure and economy Japan has all the ingredients to become a dominant East Asian and global power.
Article 9 of the Japanese constitution forbids the nation from possessing offensive weapons systems such as aircraft carriers. Mr Abe wishes to hold a referendum on amending the constitution to repeal Article 9. It also commits Japan to de facto pacifism, not intervening in the affairs of other countries except to support trade and economic development. It is not certain whether Abe will ultimately get his way in terms of revising the constitution. However there are new factors which may compel the Japanese public to vote how he wants in a future referendum on the issue. The rise and provocative behaviour of China, as well as unstable nuclear armed North Korea are key among them. The days of arguably free-riding on American military prowess and regional security commitments may be over.
The implications of a rearmed Japan also includes questions over whether Tokyo may acquire nuclear weapons. This is a doubly emotional issue in the only country in the world to actually suffer nuclear attack - the infamous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Many Japanese people and politicians are firmly opposed to such a change. Tokyo faces other challenges such as an ageing population as well as a declining birth rate. Nonetheless escalating confrontation with North Korea and possibly its ally China raise the real possibility Japan may find itself confronted with the need to have an independent nuclear deterrent, as both nations are nuclear armed. This will be a hard question to answer for Japan.
Japan’s technological and industrial capabilities are still world leading. There was a period in the 1980’s when it looked poised to overtake America to become the world’s largest economy. Even after decades of relative stagnation it remains a key centre of innovation. This translates into significant potential advantages in the military sphere. The Japanese navy is one of the most powerful on Earth, with advanced destroyers hosting ballistic missile defences that are capable of shooting down North Korean missiles - or Chinese ones for that matter. It is also building modern ‘helicopter destroyers’, aircraft carriers in all but name. Such expansive capabilities would be acutely threatening to Chinese ability to operate in East Asia.
Indeed the rearmament of Japan would cause considerable anxiety in Beijing. Japanese militarism is still feared by China, especially as it wrought prodigious destruction on China in the first half of the twentieth century. The rise of Japan as a modern military power would very quickly block any attempt at expansion by China in the eastern arena of the Indo- newly rechristened Pacific. It would also act as the eastern lynchpin of a concert of democracies that can balance against China- the others being India in the Indian Ocean and Australia in the South East. Together with the US this forms the much talked about ‘quad’ which will increasingly shape geopolitical outcomes in Asia.
The democratic and peaceful behaviour of Japan over the decades has eased concerns about Japan potentially slipping back into its old imperialistic ways. Tokyo has contributed enormously to the development of much of the rest of the world. It has eschewed confrontation with its neighbours. In contrast, China has shown itself to be eagerly assertive, having been involved in border wars with nearly all of its neighbours as well as probably overseeing the proliferation of nuclear weapons between Pakistan and North Korea.
In a world that is increasingly unstable, there is a developing consensus in Asia that Japanese rearmament would really be a beneficial change. It would balance China, help contain North Korea and reduce the defence burden on a US that is increasingly insular and weary of playing global policeman. Japan, the world’s forgotten superpower, may be about to return to global prominence. It will be watched with interest in many quarters.