Japan’s foreign policy shifts toward militarism
Somehow, a country of vital importance to Western interests, regional stability and global security is managing to hold a national election of seemingly little importance to anything at all.
On Oct. 22, Japan elects a new government. Exposed to China’s dominance and North Korea’s missiles, many Japanese citizens will base their votes on foreign policy, their choice made simpler by the fact that the two biggest contenders appear to offer the same thing.
That thing is conspicuous militarism. It’s a departure for the country and of uncertain benefit to the world.
It should hardly need saying that Japan matters, but it’s sometimes imagined that as China’s importance rises, Japan’s relevance necessarily declines. In fact, Japan helps the United States limit China’s power. China gets sticky fingers whenever it comes near strategically placed islands in Asia, so Japan has provided military observers and warships in support of U.S. naval drills near Chinese waters.
Japan also happens to have nearly as much stake in influencing North Korea as any other country.
Japan being so important, presumably its election might be of some interest to the world. But if Japan’s leadership merits attention, it can’t long escape anyone’s notice that the leading campaigns are on the same side of the same fight.
Conservative Shinzo Abe has been in it for 11 years as prime minister, taking on his country’s post-war pacifism as much as other threats.
No surprise, then, that one of Abe’s party’s campaign pamphlets pledges to “defend this country to the end.” The danger is that his latest defence tactic may hasten that end. The pamphlet shows him shaking Donald Trump’s hand, cementing the relationship between the oddest couple in international relations.
Abe bets that matching Trump’s blustery approach to North Korea will work — certainly to help Abe get re-elected, and maybe even to keep his country from getting decimated by a nuclear weapon. He agrees with Trump that there has been enough talking with North Korea.
Abe’s own threats to North Korea supplement his more general threat: to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution and relax limits on the military. It’s not clear that a more aggressive Japan won’t provoke more tensions rather than soothe existing ones. But it’s understandable that Japan would want to feel less vulnerable as China and North Korea become more assertive and more seemingly stark raving mad, respectively.
That’s presumably why some of Abe’s competitors aren’t fighting him on the spirit of his proposals — merely contending that others should implement them.
Those others could be members of the newly formed “Party of Hope,” which confronts Abe’s nationalistic militarism with more nationalistic militarism. Though so far the party’s founder, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, claims she will not run for a seat herself, here’s her view on the pacifist constitution: Revise it.
On the military: Relax its limits. And on North Korea: Pretend that aggressive rhetoric is more likely to resolve international crises rather than exacerbate them.
The similarities between her positions and Abe’s are a dramatic departure from Japan’s recent history. Japan’s voters ought to think carefully about the consequences of making militarism official in a region that is still coming to terms with their country’s previous aggressions.
The rest of us may want to think about it, too.
In a world facing challenges from China and North Korea, Japan matters. How disturbing that its national election may not.