Opinion: Rearming Japan

Today in the Asia Pacific region, countries that previously fought against Japan's WWII expansionism now find themselves more threatened by a different expanding power, their previous ally, China.

Not too long ago, in a Financial Times interview, Albert del Rosario, Foreign Secretary of the Philippines, saw fit to address his nation's changing concerns this way. He said in effect that the time has come for Japan to be an active player in regional security; it should upgrade its military and change article 9 of its "Peace Constitution."

World War II ended some 67-plus years ago. And while there remain searing memories and residual distrust in some of the countries Japan occupied, that is more than two generations past. As new countries, new alliances and new threats have risen, people have trouble remembering the Vietnam War, let alone WWII. In this situation of global interaction even the minute East Timor gained its freedom and a new Constitution. Yet Japan remains saddled with constitutional elements based on the fears, threats and situation of a world three generations past.

Japan is not the threat or the country that it once was. The new threat to sea-lanes and trade routes is not Japan but China. In its so-called "peaceful rising" China has already had confrontations with smaller countries as Vietnam (Paracel and Spratly Islands) and the Philippines (Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal). It has further given Hainan Province the right to seize and search any vessels "illegally within Chinese-claimed waters." It is China and not Japan that has further threatened war to "retake" a democratic Taiwan where its flag has never flown.

There can be no question that in this world of expanding global interdependence, one major terrain of future confrontations will most surely be on the seas, and there China continues to expand its power. With no major threats or enemies in either the East or South China Seas, China has added an aircraft carrier, for what purpose? China has also added two destroyers to 13 other new vessels for surveillance patrols in both seas and the Haixun 21, with a helipad, has added muscle to its presence in the South China Sea. Air reconnaissance challenges over the Diaoyutais/Senkakus have also been stepped up.

Shinzo Abe, Japan's new Prime Minister is alert to the growing concerns of all as well of course to the threat to Japan. He knows that peace and stability in the East China Sea are inseparable from that in the South China Sea. He has suggested that Japan join with Australia, India and the US state of Hawaii to develop a "security diamond" that would protect the interests of all sea-lanes. He has also invited Britain and France to make a presence, and would allow Japan to join the United Kingdom's defense agreements with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. No enemy is an enemy forever.

This is where the new thinking needs to be applied by Taiwan and others in Asia. As an island nation with a long maritime tradition, Japan can be a staunch ally to many, even to island Taiwan. But if it is going to be a team player in new alliances, it does need to be able to hold up its side and with its partners expecting no less. They should not leave it with one hand tied behind its back.

This not only means increasing its defense budget, which it already is, but it also means having the ability to actively aid any ally that is under attack. Taiwan should take advantage of this fact.

To be sure, in defense, some fudging on this already exists with ships like the Hyuga-class destroyers but in this ever-changing world of alliances, a certain absurdity still remains. We have a world where all other nations despite their own checkered histories of aggression are nevertheless allowed to declare war as a sovereign right, yet Japan is denied that because of Article 9 in its Constitution and the high bar of two-thirds approval of both Houses of Parliament as well as a majority in a national referendum for constitutional change.

In this increasingly complex milieu, even the United States unfortunately sends mixed messages. On the one hand, it has kept its bases in Okinawa, and wishes a presence in Asean but at the same time some pundits therein regularly suggest that a second island chain defense is sufficient, thus leaving Japan, Taiwan and other Asian nations exposed.

Yes, in Asia, there is a new threat; a new hegemon is arising. This threat is not so peaceful and it is not Japan. As competition for resources grows, and trade and commerce need to be protected, new awareness, new thinking and new alliances must be had. Who will lead the way in examining what nation is the real threat to peace and stability, let alone democracy in Asia?

(Jerome F. Keating Ph.D., has lived in Asia for 25 years, primarily as manager of technology transfer on the Taipei and Kaohsiung MRT projects. He retired as professor at National Taipei University.)