Tokyo’s defense policy continues to shift and pushes the boundaries of what was acceptable in the past. Self-Defense Forces capabilities are expanding, and this is an essential component of the growing coordination between the region’s maritime democracies.
The debate on the meaning of Article 9 of the Constitution is once again making headlines. Beyond the proposals for reinterpretation, and even formal amendment, we can observe yet again practical policy moves crossing its boundaries. In part, these moves reflect the always difficult distinction between defense and offense. Another line which may be shifting is that between self-defense and collective defense.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s late May to Myanmar (Burma) has highlighted the scale of Japan’s interests in the country. These not only include trade, investment, and economic cooperation, but also comprise national security themes. Myanmar is home to key natural resources, offers cheap labor and untapped markets, and is located at a strategic crossroads.
“Even though we are involved in the dialogue and policymaking process, we are rather excluded when it comes to implementation.” This was an observation made to the SNA by an NGO insider when speaking of the recent Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD V) held in Yokohama from June 1 to June 3.
At a meeting held on May 22 in Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his Filipino counterpart Albert del Rosario confirmed that Tokyo would be providing ten vessels to the Philippine coast guard “with an eye on China,” according to the Asahi Shinbun. The Philippines have long been considered among the weakest military powers in Southeast Asia, while Japan chose in the 1960s not to export weapons, as part of its postwar focus on economic reconstruction.
Since we are based in Tokyo and not in Washington DC, we may not be the best source available for understanding US government policy, even its policy toward Japan and Asia. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to notice that the Obama administration is taking an unexpectedly cool posture toward Shinzo Abe and his band, and that this is having a major political effect here as well. It is also obvious that the Obama policy toward Japan is radically different than what US policy was a decade ago under George W. Bush.
The new regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping is to be congratulated for accomplishing the remarkable feat of making the rightwing lunatic fringe of Japanese politics look positively wise and prescient this week. Ever since large-scale anti-Chinese protests began to appear on the streets of Japan in the autumn of 2010, one of their staple claims was that Beijing had its longing eyes focused on the uninhabited Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands only as a first step toward encroaching on well-inhabited Okinawa, then Kyushu, then all of Japan.
The return of Shinzo Abe to the Japanese premiership was expected to lead to renewed efforts to build ties with fellow democracies, albeit within a pragmatic framework designed not to give the appearance of an explicit containment policy vis-à-vis China. The early foreign trips by some key members of the administration, including Abe himself, to Southeast Asia, made it clear that this would indeed be on the agenda.
If all goes well, one of China’s largest and most advanced patrol boats, the Haixun 31, should arrive in Hawaii on September 4 for cooperative exercises with the United States Coast Guard to “strengthen mutual understanding.” This will be the first time a Chinese patrol ship with helicopter-carrying capacity will dock in the United States.