Japan’s Navy Is Back, and There’s No Cause to Be Alarmed

Japan's Navy Is Back, and There's No Cause to Be Alarmed

Nayan Chanda
Thursday, November 22, 2001

Some of the changes in Asia caused by America's war on terrorism may fade as quickly as the condensation trails of the B-52 bombers over Afghanistan. But one quiet development marks a major turning point: the re-emergence of Japan's naval forces from constitutionally mandated quarantine.

On Nov. 9, with little fanfare, two Japanese destroyers and a supply ship sailed from the Sasebo naval base for the Indian Ocean. The aim of Japan's first foray into the area since World War II is to support the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.

The three vessels will be joined shortly by another destroyer, a support ship and eight aircraft. Together with the first dispatch of military forces from Germany, the event could come to mark the end of the post-World War II period.

In the Gulf War, pacifist public opinion and an anti-war constitution at home combined in diplomatic humiliation for Tokyo. Support for its U.S. ally amounted to a check for $13 billion and the dispatch, too late as it turned out, of a few minesweepers. This time Japan's policymakers acted swiftly.

In responding to America's call for "visible forms of participation," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had to overcome legal constraints and political opposition. He also had to sell the plan to suspicious China and South Korea. Within a week he initiated an Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law allowing Japan's Self-Defense Forces to provide noncombat cooperation outside the area "surrounding Japan." With considerable political deftness, he pushed the law through the Diet at record speed.

On Oct. 8, the day America began bombing Afghanistan, Mr. Koizumi headed for Beijing to mollify China, which is strongly opposed to Japanese militarism and had been particularly upset by his visit in August to a shrine to Japan's war dead.

Showing necessary contrition, Mr. Koizumi traveled to a historic site where full-scale war erupted in 1937 and expressed his "heartfelt apology and sorrow" for Japan's wartime excesses. It proved a formula that met, finally, with Chinese approval, symbolically opening a path for a full normalization of relations.

In a similar visit to South Korea a week later, Mr. Koizumi won praise from President Kim Dae Jung.

Of course, acceptance by China and South Korea of Mr. Koizumi's apology is not a blessing for the return of Japanese military power.

The Bush administration, already urging an enhanced international role for Japan's military before Sept. 11, has been pleasantly surprised by the turn of events. Still, while a large majority of Japanese public opinion is sympathetic to the American-led war against terrorism, recent polls show only 8 percent in favor of active Japanese cooperation.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partners went along with Mr. Koizumi in voting for the anti-terrorism bill, but deep-seated resistance within the LDP to overseas military involvement has already succeeded in cutting down Japan's military profile. Senior party leaders and opposition politicians blocked Mr. Koizumi from sending destroyers equipped with the Aegis battle-management system, out of concern that state-of-the-art intelligence, communications and command and control capabilities might be seen as overly aggressive. Japan's neighbors will be watching closely for any sign of Tokyo wanting to extend the mandate for its naval forces beyond a two-year term or in areas other than noncombatant cooperation. A recent article in the official China Daily warned that further solidification by Tokyo of the U.S.-Japanese security alliance would constitute "a threat to security in East Asia."

Over time, China and Korea, like the rest of Asia, may come to accept the necessity of Japan's navy maintaining the safety of sea-lanes, particularly in a time of rising international concern about terrorism. The Chinese Communist Party needs to sustain the memory of its war against the Japanese occupation as a justification for its one-party rule, yet it cannot ignore the importance of Japan's aid and investment.

In the past 20 years China has received de facto reparations of $23 billion in grants and soft loans from Japan. Other neighbors, too, have benefited from Japanese generosity. The deeply rooted pacifism of the Japanese should continue to quiet critics. Consistently low public support for Japanese military involvement abroad remains the best guarantee against a return to a violent past.

The writer is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of
Globalization. With Strobe Talbott, he is co-editor of the forthcoming book
“The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11.” He
contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

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