Will Japan Become The Next Big Military Superpower?

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Elena Weissmann Contributor
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Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has long dreamed of cutting the constitutional clause that prohibits Japan from waging war.

“I am a patriot. I would think there are no politicians who are not patriots,” the stocky, tousle-haired prime minister told TIME magazine in 2014. “I say we should change our constitution now.”

Abe has previously called for a “departure from the postwar regime” in order to “bring back Japan,” arousing fear in the hearts of elderly Japanese pacifists who remember the bloody battles of World War II.

But in the face of left-wing opposition and East Asian hostility, it has appeared unlikely that Abe would ever realize his dreams — until now.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its ally Komeito won a two-thirds majority in Japan’s upper-house election July 3, finally granting Abe a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament and the opportunity to propose constitutional reform.

Raising his bushy black eyebrows, the triumphant prime minister told reporters July 3 that the “LDP has held the goal of revising the Constitution since its formation, and it included that goal in its platform for governing.”

Ayako Doi, an associate fellow at the Asia Society, says Abe’s main goal has always been to revoke Article 9, the constitutional clause the United States imposed after World War II that renounces war as a “sovereign right” of Japan.

“That was his grandfather’s wish, who was prime minister in the 1960s. In Abe’s mind, it has never been achieved,” Doi said.

If the upper- and lower-house successfully push through the proposal, a national referendum would be held that requires a majority vote to pass. The vote could go either way: an exit poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper showed that 49% of voters supported constitutional revision, with 44% opposed — “similar to the Brexit vote,” Doi said.

Yet constitutional revision would seem to change little in a country that boasts the fourth strongest military in the world, according to a Credit Suisse ranking. Japan spends $41.6 billion annually on its Self-Defense Forces, which can now legally assist the United States and other allies after Abe pushed through a 2015 law reinterpreting Article Nine.

The new interpretation marked a historic shift away from pacifist foreign policy. For the first time since World War II, Japan now has the right to engage in overseas combat assignments, if only under limited conditions.

“Abe has moved steadily to allow Japan to play a greater role in security abroad ” said Michael Auslin, the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “He has increased the military budget, dramatically improved Japan’s relations in Europe, and deepened an alliance with the United States.”

“The question of revision is more of a symbolic one,” he added.

The country currently owns 678 tanks; 1,613 aircrafts; and 16 submarines, pulling it ahead of India, France, and South Korea in the Credit Suisse ranking. Japan is a “world leader next to the U.S. in missile capability,” said Auslin, with an “excellent navy” and an “excellent coast guard.”

The nation sports some of the most modern and advanced military equipment in all of Asia, including modern reconnaissance drones, licence-built Apache attack helicopters, and new fifth-generation fighter jets. BBC calls Japan’s Self-Defense Forces the “toothless tiger:” equipped with top-notch equipment and highly trained, but prohibited from waging war.

Japan calls it all “Self-Defense Forces,” in part to circumvent Article 9’s pledge that “land, sea, and air forces will never be maintained.”

Abe has pointed towards this constitutional inconsistency as a reason for revision, claiming that 70 percent of constitutional scholars believe Japan’s Self-Defense Forces violate Article 9. But in the meantime, Japan can “do all of the things it wants to do,” Doi said. “Changing the constitution will only unnecessarily alarm or irritate its neighbors.”

Japan’s neighbors may serve as the very reason it’s considering revision. North Korea continues to threaten nuclear warfare, while China has grown increasingly hostile in territorial disputes over the East China Sea.

“There is certainly a power rivalry going on between Japan and China in the region,” said Nicholas Szechenyi, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic International Studies. “So any steps that Japan takes to strengthen its defense will likely threaten China.”

China’s official news agency, the Xinhua, has not responded favorably to Sunday’s election results, calling Abe’s win a threat to “regional stability” as “Japan’s militarization will serve to benefit neither side.”

China’s military is ranked just ahead of Japan’s, as third strongest in the world. China has good reason to fear a stronger Japan — partnered with the U.S., the country would make a formidable foe.

Unlike Beijing, Washington would embrace constitutional revision, Doi said, because Japan could “do more to contribute to whatever conflict the U.S. gets into, in terms of military support, weapons, or equipment.”

“Of course, publicly, they would never say that,” she added.

Although Japan and the U.S. have maintained a strong relationship since World War II, a certain blond-haired, billionaire real estate mogul may be rocking the coalition. According to Doi, the rise of presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump has made the Japanese “nervous and disturbed.”

“Trump is anti-Japanese in all aspects,” Doi said. Should Japan need future protection, “there’s doubt in the Japanese mind about whether the U.S. will be willing to commit its power and money,” she added.

Constitutional reform would allow Japan to establish a stronger military and strengthen its international ties, lessening its reliance on the United States and establishing a degree of autonomy.

Yet the Japanese public are still conflicted over Abe’s call for reform. The country prides itself on its unique pacifist policies, and in 2014, there was even a push to nominate Article 9 for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“People take pride in it,” one Japanese student explained. “I think it’s our stance on being ‘peaceful’ in a way, which is a little naive.”

Abe will likely pursue constitutional revision in earnest later this year, at which point Japanese sentiment will become more clear.

“This question of revising the constitution is one that combines issues of national identity and history,” Auslin said. “Japan must find its place among the nations of the world.”

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