By Alex Calvo
SNA (Nagoya) – Faced with a complex and increasingly dangerous regional scenario, under growing demands for naval hardware and diplomatic support from countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, in the midst of complex domestic negotiations concerning the evolving interpretation of constitutional provisions on security and defense, and faced with the need for Japan to redefine its international image, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems to have decided to emphasize the “rule of law” as a central tenet of Japanese foreign policy. The notion took center stage at his May 30 keynote address to the 13th International Institute for Strategic Studies Asian Security Summit in Singapore (Shangri-La Dialogue), whose title included the phrase: “Japan for the rule of law, Asia for the rule of law, And the rule of law for all of us.”
The concept of the “rule of law” is most important for a number of reasons, and while not free from dangers, it may well be a strong foundation on which to rest both Japan’s re-definition as a country (leaving behind both the militarism of the 1930s and the fixation with economic growth and its kawaii side in the post-war era), as well as reaction to the growing territorial tensions in the region.
First of all, it is difficult to oppose, at least in theory. After all, who is against the law?
Second, by stressing one of the central tenets of Anglo-Saxon culture, it signals a return to the “Britain of the East” narrative, although this time with fellow maritime democracies in the Indo-Pacific region on board.
Third, it provides an alternative narrative to Beijing’s historical claims, not seeking to deny them with alternative historical arguments but to place them squarely within the law.
Fourth, by challenging China to accept the law as the foundation of international relations and the settlement of international disputes, it puts Beijing in the spotlight and challenges both the notion of its “peaceful rise” and that of its role as main American partner not only in Asia but the world.
Fifth, it provides cover for domestic moves to redefine the legal and constitutional basis of military force, by portraying a wider role for the Self-Defense Forces not as moving away from the notion of government bound by the law but as extending it to the international arena. Thus, in order to avoid accusations that Tokyo is disregarding domestic legality in its quest to become a “normal” country, it tries to seek the initiative, portraying reforms as designed to help contribute to international legality.
Of course, this does not mean that this path is going to be easy, nor that it is devoid of dangers.
It is one thing to place the “rule of law” in the midst of the international debate on territorial conflicts and secure its mention at regional fora, and it is quite another thing to translate it into effective cooperation on the ground. This may require a much more agile provision of training and equipment to countries like Vietnam, and a concerted effort by Japanese corporations to invest more in such regional partners, leaving behind the focus on China, while avoiding looking as if this is some sort of economic warfare campaign against Beijing.
On the trade front, the connection of which to national security and the changing regional landscape Prime Minister Abe seems to have recognized early on in his second term, investing considerable political capital in negotiations and a successful conclusion to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a must, together with other bilateral and multilateral initiatives designed to diversify the foreign trade of maritime democracies and to prevent them from becoming too reliant on any single market.
Here Taiwan is a particular case in point, the key location of the island meaning that Japanese national security would be greatly endangered if it fell into hostile hands. Tokyo has the advantage that its colonial rule was relatively benign on that island, and therefore it can count on a great measure of goodwill, as is the case in India.
In other quarters, however, the long shadow of the Pacific War is very much present, and it will take more than nice words to prevent it from barring deeper relations.
Another potential obstacle is the issue of whaling. While Tokyo was quick to state that it would accept the International Court of Justice ruling on Antarctic whaling, portraying Japan as a champion of the “rule of law” at sea requires not just speedy implementation but a wider agreement putting an end to this controversy. Such an agreement, together with support for the Philippines in its international arbitration case against China concerning the South China Sea-West Filipino Sea (and any similar action Vietnam may take in the future), may reinforce the perception of Japan as a cornerstone of international law and the rule of law at sea.
While ideally this should be accompanied by progress in negotiations with Russia over the Southern Kurile-Northern Territories islands, the mere fact that this dispute, unlike most others in Asia, does not feature the use of force at sea may be enough for Japan to use it to highlight how other regional states follow a very different approach in claiming what they consider to be their rightful territory.
Finally, the domestic debate on collective self-defense is most important. Unless Japan can beef up its narrative on the “rule of law” with more scope for regional security and defense cooperation, it runs the risk of not being taken seriously. It does not suffice to simply reinforce the possibility of assisting partners and allies in military conflicts, since clashes at sea now tend to take a more complex form, as witnessed in the current China-Vietnam confrontation.
In these circumstances, any discussion of the legal framework and rules of engagement under which the MSDF and the Japan Coast Guard operate must take into account that they are facing a very different set of scenarios. Oddly, how to face a fishing boat may be a more pressing issue than how to face an armed attack by a naval vessel, and in that sense the “grey zone” debate in Tokyo is indeed a timely one.
Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University