Japan is looking to end a long era of military pacifism by reinterpreting an article in its constitution which bans it from waging war with other countries.
The move not only symbolises the shift in Japan’s own geopolitical circumstances over the years, but serves as a token of the evolving security dynamics of both the Asian region and the globe as a whole.
At the death of World War II, Japan – much like Germany – sat in an awkward position; it had just lost a brutal, savage war that it had been waging to extend its own sovereign territory.
It was the small island nation’s second attempt in recent times to forge an empire across the Asian region, but this time it had wrought death and destruction at a much greater scale.
All of a sudden, its fate was in the hands of its major opponent in the war – the USA. The Americans decided to occupy the country, to ensure that it wouldn’t return back to its imperialistic ways.
One of the longest-lasting legacies of this occupation was the new Constitution it engendered, which was signed in 1947. One of its articles committed the country to military pacifism, by disallowing it from keeping armed forces and renouncing war as a political strategy.
This was Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which stated:
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.
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 US was so sufficiently reassured of Japan’s restoration to a peaceful democracy that it ended its occupation in 1951.
However, the Japanese were allowed to keep “Self-Defence Forces” (SDF) to protect the country from foreign attacks. These forces could not be used on foreign soil.
The Japanese initially interpreted the article to mean that they couldn’t build up a military force to attack anyone else for belligerent purposes, but this didn’t mean that they could have some defence forces to defend itself.
In any case, Japan went on to enjoy a long era of peace and economic development and prosperity, which owed a lot to the country’s immunity from military spending, relative to other countries.
The current reinterpretation of Article 9, allowing Japan to exercise the right of “collective self defense” and to exercise military action if one of its allies were to be attacked, is hardly uncalled for. Times have changed significantly since the Japanese Constitution was drafted.
Japan no longer poses a threat to international security, as its people have far outgrown the imperialistic, anti-foreign attitudes that sparked their militaristic belligerence in the first half of the twentieth century.
So have they outgrown their die-hard love and worship of the Japanese monarchy, which now assumes, healthily, a more figurative role in the eyes of the Japanese public.
But more critically, the geopolitical circumstances which Japan – and its allies – find themselves in are much different today than they were back then.
Just after the War, Japan had no impactful military rivals in the Asian region. With an army at its disposal, Japan was entirely capable of sweeping across the Pacific as it did in the Second World War, threatening countries like Australia and the US as well as its Asian neighbours.
Now, China is the second largest military spender in the world and commands much superior military capabilities than Japan.
The East Asian region has developed into something of a hotbed for territorial disputes as China increasingly looks to assert its dominance.
At the end of May, China and Japan virtually played a game of aerial “chicken” as a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft entered an air defence zone declared by Beijing over the East China Sea, narrowly avoiding a collision with a Chinese fighter jet.
China created the new air-defense identification zone last November, conspicuously including the island of Diaoyu, the ownership of which both countries are in dispute of.
Around the same time, Vietnamese and Chinese vessel fleets engaged in a physical confrontation in the South China Sea – the first since their last military conflict ended in 1979 – after China’s state oil company began drilling for oil near the Paracel islands. The islands are located off the Vietnam coastline, but are claimed by both nations.
Meanwhile, North Korea continues to be a nuisance in the area. Recently, it reportedly fired shells near a South Korean naval patrol ship below the Northern Limit Line, the maritime boundary dividing the two countries, before carrying out two nuclear tests.
This has all come amid concerns that East Asian countries are engaging in a massive arms race, with Asia’s overall defence spending overtaking Europe’s for the first time in history last year.
Upon this nervy backdrop, it is understandable that Tokyo wishes to contribute to the collective security in the region, to deter the outbreak of conflict.
However, it remains to be seen whether this is merely a move to play a more active role in the security politics of the US and other allies, or whether it is spinning rhetoric in order to extend its armed forces to balance out the emerging power capabilities of China.
At any rate, what the situation does suggest is that global security concerns are always evolving and so all the remnants of the post-World War II IR framework should be scrutinised for their relevance in the world today.