A shift in Japan’s defence posture has been noted with approval in New Zealand. The Key Government’s 2016 Defence White Paper observed:
Japan is an important defence partner for New Zealand, with common democratic values and a shared commitment to maintaining regional peace and security. New Zealand welcomes Japan’s recent moves to make a more proactive contribution to international security (para 3.68, p34).
Indications of what this partnership may involve could emerge from upcoming high levels visits to Japan. In turn, Japan is planning to send an aircraft and a ship for the Royal NZ Navy fleet review this November. It will also surely want to market its Kawasaki aircraft as possible replacements for New Zealand’s long-serving Hercules and Orion planes.
Any resulting intensification in New Zealand’s defence relationship with Japan will be occurring at a time of significant change in Tokyo’s outlook.
Secondly, Japan faces a more assertive China particularly, though not solely, over the Senkaku islands (known to China as the Diaoyus). These islands are under Japan’s administrative control and the Obama Administration has confirmed their coverage by the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty. In one recent Japanese opinion poll, 80% of the respondents said they feared that there would be a military clash over these East China Sea islands. During the 2015 fiscal year Japanese fighter jets scrambled 571 times to intercept Chinese planes approaching Japan. Speaking of fiscal periods, China’s rapidly increasing defence budget amounted in 2014 to $132US billion whereas this year Japan’s amounts to $US42.4 billion.
Thirdly, despite the Obama Adminstration’s assurances some in Japan are doubtful about the level of the US commitment to the region. Japan has long relied on US commitment to defend Japan and to provide a nuclear umbrella which has forestalled the development of a Japanese nuclear arsenal. Should Japan’s decision-makers conclude that the alliance situation is rocky (and comments from Mr Trump about allies doing more for themselves may suggest just that), further impetus to a more active Japan Self-Defence Force may be in the offing.
Fourthly, Japan has been unsettled by the reality that China has overtaken it economically and become the second largest economy in the world. Japan remains a powerful country with an advanced economy and is not willing to accept China’s domination of the region. But Japan’s leaders may be thinking they are running out of time to ensure this does not occur.
Changing circumstances have been coupled with changing powers available to Japan’s armed forces. Most obvious are the constitutional revisions that the Abe government has sought especially of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, which reads:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
A reinterpretation of Article 9 was achieved in July of 2014.and law changes followed in 2015. The reinterpretation allows Japan’s forces to engage in collective self-defence in limited conditions, to protect allies’ forces, to send self-defence forces to support United States military activities in conflict areas and to join internationally sanctioned security activities.
Although the Diet passed the law changes there has been considerable public opposition and concern that the reinterpretation gutted the intention of Article 9 without going through the constitutional requirements of revising it.
If the Abe Government has its way the Constitution will be formally revised,, a process that requires a two-thirds majority vote in favour in the two houses of Japan’s parliament, the Diet, and a majority in favour in a public referendum.
These moves have been accompanied by a growing tone of nationalism and even revisionism among leading political figures. After widespread protests from neighbours and even the US and a measured response from the United Nations Secretary-General, Abe has not visited the Yasakuni Shrine a second time during his prime ministership. The shrine is a war memorial that has profound significance for Japan’s neighbours because 14 Class A war criminals are commemorated there as well as Japan’s soldiers killed in wars. Japan’s neighbours sometimes interpret visits as an indication that Japan has not repented for its actions during World War 2. Some of Abe’s Cabinet are of profoundly conservative persuasion including one who advocated changing the Constitution by following Nazi Germany’s example (the Government later distanced itself from this view). These statements and moves have fed into nationalism in China and South Korea. This stirring of nationalist sentiment in Asia is dangerous for the whole region. It might well be a good thing, therefore, if New Zealand’s defence relationship with Japan gets closer at a modest pace.
Otherwise Wellington risks getting its own views caught up in a North Asian spiral not of its own making. Mr Abe has suggested that Asia should have a defence alliance similar to NATO. But New Zealand would be better to identify itself with the approaches taken by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which aims for, even if it does not always achieve, closer collaboration and consultation among all the nations of Asia.
Stuart McMillan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org