Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his cabinet have reversed a 60-year-old interpretation of the Japanese constitution that gives Japan the ability to intervene in military conflicts. This hawkish decision has the potential to send shockwaves through the tense security climate of East Asia.
Since Shinzo Abe assumed the Japanese Prime Ministership for the second time in late 2012, he has moved Japan away from the more tempered foreign policy that has defined Japanese action since World War II. Today’s decision to give more authority to the Japanese forces to intervene in conflicts where allies are threatened runs the risk of sparking increased tensions in East Asia.
Indeed, the security issues in East Asia are as much defined by current geo-political considerations as deep historic antecedents. Japan’s history as a colonial power in Asia has left deep scars that still influence policy today. In Korea for instance, the horrendous actions committed by the Japanese (including the indiscriminate murdering and raping of civilians) has strained relations between East Asia’s two largest democracies. Even today, when Korea and Japan have every incentive to strengthen their relationship in an effort to check the rise of China, they continue to fight over history. Furthermore, given the proximity of both countries with the United States, it would make sense for the three nations to create a unified foreign policy plan to respond to the territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
Even with China, the historic relationship with Japan continues to define their current geopolitical relations. Upon the announcement of today’s news, Beijing accused Tokyo of “undermining regional peace and stability.” Clearly, the imprint of Japanese colonialism, which led to such actions as the Rape of Nanking, has instilled within China the prevailing notion that Japan still harbors colonial aspirations. The hawkish stance that Shinzo Abe has taken, including his controversial visit to the Yakusuni Shrine – the burial site of a number of war criminals – deeply unsettled Beijing.
This political maneuvering by Japan comes at a time when relations between the two countries are deeply marred by territorial disputes over the Senkaku islands. Under the aegis of US military protection (which they have enjoyed since after WWII) Japan has been far more assertive in their territorial claim, going so far as conducting naval exercises in the region. By changing Japan’s military policy, it is quite likely that Japan will make these tensions escalate further.
Although Abe has proven to be extremely hawkish since assuming the Prime Ministership, this most recent move appears to be motivated by domestic political considerations. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s approval rating has dipped below 45% for the first time since taking office. As such, it is quite likely that Abe is stirring up nationalistic sentiments to artificially dope his popularity. Such a move is particularly reckless in East Asia where tensions among powerful nations could easily boil over. What’s more, the move appears to have been met with a mixed response from the Japanese public. Just this weekend, a man set himself on fire in Tokyo in protest to the planned military change – clearly a 60-year-old policy is not as easily scrapped as Abe predicted.
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