What role will Japan play in Asia-Pacific?
Japan has long been a major power in the Asia-Pacific, and one of the closest U.S. allies.
In fact, with an increasingly assertive China and a threat-pumping North Korea, it could be argued that Japan is the most important American ally in the region. Much of Japan’s foreign policy rests on the U.S. facilitated constitution created after Japanese defeat in World War II.
Of course, much has changed in the world since then and in the past year Japan has been able to put old conflicts to rest while keeping an eye on the future. This begs the question whether a reform minded Japan will increase stability in a region that views state relations suspiciously.
In terms of military use and security in general, Japan has embraced a post-war policy of pacifism. The ideology that wars and conflicts should be resolved peacefully rather than violently has gained enormous public support in Japan over time. Its neighbors have also enjoyed this approach, and they certainly spare no chance at bringing up Japan’s imperial past.
That traditional pacifist policy began to change last year though, as the Japanese parliament made an enormous shift. Last September, a bill was passed that allows Japanese armed forces to fight outside of its territory for the first time since the end of WWII.
Prior to this recent policy change, Japan was unable to assist any allies militarily and to a great extent had major constraints on even defending itself.
This is great news for the U.S., for if say the U.S. and Japan had a joint patrol in Afghanistan, Japanese forces would now legally be able to assist any American forces that came under direct fire.
There are constraints to this newfound military gift though, and Japan would be wise to ensure its neighbors of its adherence to them. For instance, the bill only allows Japanese forces to use military force if a close ally such as the U.S. or itself is attacked, and that is only if no other means exist to repel such an attack. This point should be continuously brought up to its neighbors who fear of a resurgence of an imperial Japan.
A good example would be the defense budget that Japan approved a couple of weeks ago that has now become its largest ever. A major reason for the uptick in spending is to repel any attempt by China to invade the contested Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
Concerns are bound to be brought up if Japan begins to actively patrol contested islands with military ships and/or aircraft. Another way to look at it would be that very few people were concerned about the initial defense spending increase in China.
That initial feeling quickly went to the wayside as soon as China started claiming contested regions of both the East and South China Seas. Japan should be careful not to fall into the same precarious trap.
Perhaps the most important thing Japan can do to increase security in the Asia-Pacific is bettering its relations with neighbors, particularly South Korea. This has gotten a great head start by both countries putting the issue of comfort women behind them “irreversibly” as the respected leaders have said.
Comfort women were portions of the South Korean population that was forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers during World War II. There is not an exact known number of the women who were forced into this treatment, but estimates range anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000.
Initially, the Japanese government denied that ‘comfort stations’ even existed, but eventually conceded the fact that they did in fact exist. However, Japan refused to compensate the women arguing that all claims were settled in postwar treaties.
This has infuriated the South Korean population and still remains a major detriment to bilateral relations 70 years later. In fact, a poll conducted by the South China Morning Post found that more South Koreans find North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un more favorable than Japanese president Shinzo Abe.
Clearly hostility towards Japan still persists, and the recent solution to the comfort women issue won’t change South Korea-Japan relations overnight, but steps are being taken in the right direction by both sides.
Change often comes slow in East Asia, as many views and cultural values are deep rooted and long held. However, it appears Japan is ready to make the right reforms to ensure a more secure and prosperous Asia-Pacific.
Follow Jake Pfeifer on Twitter at @jake8922.