Japan Reflects on Defense and Normalization

February 4, 2015 Updated: February 4, 2015

Video Transcript

Ben Sheen: Hello and thank you for joining us. My name is ben sheen and I’m joined here today by Stratfor’s Roger Baker. We’ll be talking a little bit about Japan’s approach to dealing with various overseas threats as exemplified by the recent kidnappings of Japanese nationals overseas. So Roger, what we’ve seen from the most recent kidnappings is actually a fairly muted Japanese response. What could they have done? Could they have done anything differently? Why were they in the position they were when it came to possibly a lack of action in terms of getting their people back?

Roger Baker: Well there were a couple of issues with the Japanese kidnapping in this case. First of all, these individuals were not on any official government activity. Second, they were in a country that the government had issued a warning against going to. Japanese law requires any sort of action that they are going to do to have the permission of the country in which that action may take place, and in this case, they were not getting permission from the Syrian government. But finally the Japanese law and the way in which they continue to interpret their constitutional restraints on their military really limits their ability to deploy forces for the protection of Japanese citizens abroad in this case. They don’t have a way to send a rescue operation in.

Ben: And that’s interesting because they do have the capability. They do have good training and equipment and certainly they’ve benefitted from a relationship with the United States, both in terms of a protective relationship, but also in a training advisory one. But also what we’ve seen is a lack of political will to actually engage in activities overseas. And certainly like you said they haven’t had this direct ability to operate in the way that most countries do in the modern world.

Roger: Well I think for Japan the constraint on their overseas deployment for a long time was a positive for them. It allowed them to be able to focus economically, to be able to focus politically in their relationships, not have to put the cost both in terms of financial resources and manpower but also the political cost of being engaged internationally in military operations. That’s not necessarily still serving their purpose. And as we’re seeing with many countries that have tried to take either in Japan’s case that sort of semi-enforced pacifist rule, or in their neighbor China’s case of say of a non-interference role internationally. It was for a long time seen as a way to insulate yourself and let other people do the heavy lifting. But they are finding that their citizens are no longer insulated and others aren’t necessarily doing the heavy lifting for them, and they’re going to have to start taking a more active role.

Ben: I mean certainly as the role of the United States in Asia-Pacific region changes and as other countries come to the fore and have to become more active in stability both in that region and elsewhere, certainly Japan is going to be at greater risk from outside actors from other nations. How do you think they can actually deal with this emerging threat and be able to counteract anything that happens in the future perhaps?

Roger: Well one of the first things we’re going to see the Japanese do is a significant increase in intelligence sharing. They’re already talking about sending more military attaches abroad to their embassies, to be able to share particularly in the Middle East where they don’t have very close intelligence relationships. They’ll expand their military training with the United States. And we’re going to see this debate that’s been taking place in Japan on formally changing the constitution, not just reinterpreting it but formally changing it to allow the Japanese to be able to have a full standing army and to be able to use that third leg of international relations.

Ben: Yes and clearly it has moved toward normalization as something that’s been ongoing for a little while now, but it’s been lacking both in political will within the Japanese diet but also within the population as well, who haven’t felt a need to be proactive overseas. How do you think they are going to be able to reconcile the two, the wants and needs of the people versus the requirement for a government to be able to protect its personnel overseas?

Roger: I think a lot of the work has already been done. And that’s been really just the reinterpretation. They’re at this final final phase but for years and years, for example, in-air refueling was considered offensive and therefore didn’t have the capability. Suddenly they declared it defensive and they have the capability now. They’ve recently carried out amphibious landing exercises with the United States. That was always perceived as an offensive operation, now it’s seen as a defensive operation. They increased the ability of the air force or the coast guard and the navies to talk to each other, which they didn’t have before. So they’ve established a formal defense ministry, all of these things were steps that functionally have significantly altered the ability of the Japanese military to make the final transition that they are trying to do now with this last little bit politically. This kidnapping certainly reinforces the idea that Japan doesn’t necessarily have the ability to protect its citizens abroad. And that’s going to be coming into the debate. I think its also going to be shaped in the debate that just saying that you’re pacifist doesn’t give you protection. Now some people in Japan are arguing that if the prime minister hadn’t linked his aid to Middle Eastern countries to the fight against ISIS that these people would have never have been kidnapped and would have never have been beheaded. But, they had already been kidnapped prior to his statement and so that’s being pushed back in Japan in this public debate to pave the way really to make this a much more understandable shift in Japanese foreign policy.

Ben: Absolutely and certainly as we see in the future Japan becoming more involved in global affairs they’re going to need to be prepared to accept that risk of getting involved outside of their traditional sphere of influence.

Roger: They certainly are. And again this is not unique to Japan. Japan is the country that we all look at because Japan has that constitutional restriction. And when Japan changes the constitution everyone calls it militarization or Japan is suddenly becoming aggressive in the world. Japan is already is already a well-developed militaries. It’s got very strong capabilities. It has had this limitation on itself, initially imposed then by choice, now it’s no longer seeing it. But China is another country that, its economic interests have grown globally. Its need to protect its citizens has grown globally. It’s found that its old method of simply saying I’m going to support both sides of a conflict and pretend like I’m noninterference is not working. And Chinese business, Chinese individuals are being targeted abroad that they’re making this shift. So I think underlying all of this is the change in the role of the United States. And that is that the United States is pulling back from being the policeman of the world. There are many parts of the country within of the world within the United States that says this is not our core strategic interest. We don’t need to necessarily expend significant amounts of manpower, significant amounts of military activity in that space. But those places are more significant for other countries and those other countries — Japan, China, South Korea, countries from Europe — are going to be the ones that are going to be having to take a much stronger and more active role in the world, where for the past few decades they’ve really been able to sit back and let the U.S. to do all the heavy lifting while they criticize the U.S. for doing it.

Ben: Yes absolutely and it will be interesting to see as America withdraws somewhat from its traditional role, which countries actually move in to fill the vacuum, certainly in Asia-Pacific and elsewhere. Roger, thank you so much for joining me today. For more on this topic and many more, please read startfor.com.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.