The decoration of the cover of Japan’s just published 2021 Defense White Paper says it all. Last year’s white paper was covered by a photo of Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms. This year’s version features a 14th-century samurai riding toward the reader.
Thus, is Japan at long last “taking the gloves off” as a Chicago street fighter or policeman might say?
Since the end of WWII, article 9 of Japan’s constitution has been interpreted to ban any Japanese use of military force except in defending the homeland if it should ever be directly attacked. While Japan and the United States are parties to a so-called mutual defense treaty, the reality is that until now it has been a unilateral commitment by the United States to defend Japan. For this purpose, Japan has allowed U.S. forces to be based in and operate out of Japan. Thus, for example, the U.S. Seventh Fleet defends the entire Indo-Pacific region out of its homeport in Yokosuka, Japan.
As the world has become smaller and more closely linked and as China has dramatically expanded its military capacity, tension has grown in Japan between those who insist on a strict interpretation of the no-war constitution and those who feel a growing necessity to increase Japan’s power to defend itself.
In 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reinterpreted article 9 to allow military action even outside of Japan if it were in the context of “collective defense,” meaning defense not just strictly of Japan, but also of Japan’s allies and neighbors. Since then, Japan has increasingly called for other like-minded states to become more active in assuring freedom and security in the Indo-Pacific region. This, of course, has been greatly stimulated by the constant harassment by Chinese quasi-military boats and ships of the Japan administered Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) islands just north of Taiwan. Yet, the willingness of Japan to actively engage in extensive co-defense policies and actions with the United States and other allies has long remained a question mark. While the Abe administration tried to move the country in a more active direction, there were many who resisted and who argued that when the chips were down, Japan would not support any military activity outside of Japan itself.
Behind this doubt lay not only the view that the Japanese people just don’t want another war, but also the view that Japan would not do anything that might endanger its trading and investment relationship with China. After all, Japan’s trade with China is about half of its total trade and is four times greater than its trade with the United States. On top of that, at about $120 billion, Japan’s investment in China is greater than that of any other country except China itself. Would Japan really act toward China in any way that might somehow endanger that investment and business relationship?
The samurai on the cover of the new Defense White Paper suggests that the answer is yes.
The reason is that Japan has watched how China treats countries it perceives to be weaker than itself. When U.S. treaty ally South Korea installed a long-range radar site on land owned by Lotte, the company’s sales in China instantly dried up as consumers quickly got the word that Beijing did not want them buying at Lotte. Or take the Philippines. President Duterte made every effort to align with China, even going so far as to say: “It’s China and the Philippines against the world.” But that did not stop Chinese ships from sinking Philippine fishing boats and seizing Philippine islands and reefs. A similar case is that of Australia. A country of only 27 million people, its biggest customer for exports of iron ore, coal, lobsters, barley, and wine is China. When the Australian Prime Minister called for an international investigation into the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19, China immediately embargoed imports from Australia to teach it a lesson about what it can and cannot say in the international debate.
Japan cannot forget that the Chinese Communist Party has not forgotten that Japan invaded China in the early 1930s and occupied and waged war there for ten years. Realistic Japanese leaders know that an Indo-Pacific region dominated by Beijing would be quite unlikely to be hospitable to Japan. It would likely be forced to pay some kind of tribute to China. After all, what is Xi Jinping’s great “Chinese Dream” except a step back to the glorious past of the Middle Kingdom when all countries around it paid tribute to the Son of Heaven?
Precisely because it does not want to pay tribute again, Japan’s samurai will strive to find allies and to defend them as an essential part of defending itself.
Clyde Prestowitz is an Asia and globalization expert, a veteran U.S. trade negotiator, and a presidential adviser. He was the leader of the first U.S. trade mission to China in 1982 and has served as an adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. As counselor to the secretary of commerce in the Reagan administration, Mr. Prestowitz headed negotiations with Japan, South Korea, and China. Mr. Prestowitz’s newest book is “The World Turned Upside Down: China, America and the Struggle for Global Leadership,” published in January 2021.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.