Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rebirth of Japanese militarism is a mixed blessing

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Imagine that China decided to land soldiers on the disputed islands it calls the Diaoyus. Japan, which administers the uninhabited rocks and knows them as the Senkakus, might, under its own laws, be unable to meet the incursion with force. By law, the nation's coast guard may repel private vessels, but not troops arriving from the air or from a submarine.

It is not clear whether Japan's pacifist constitution prevents its Self-Defence Forces from striking back until its own citizens are injured. Nor is it obvious that its main ally, the United States, would go to war to rid the Senkakus of a platoon of Chinese troops.

This uncertainty is dangerous, because it could lure China into miscalculation. In addition, Japan's alliances would be stronger and more dependable if the country were a fully active member of them, able to shoulder its burden and come to its allies' defence.

Nonetheless, although Asia would be more stable if Japan were more normal, the shadow of the Second World War means the country's neighbours worry that their old enemy is about to forsake pacifism. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should be trying to allay their fears. He has chosen instead to visit a shrine commemorating high-ranking war criminals.

Abe's ambition is to restore Japan after 20 years of stagnation. He is trying to revive the economy using "Abenomics," a blend of reflation, stimulus and reform.

His designs for Japanese security are equally important, however. The concern is partly that a rising China could become a threat. It is also that, in a scrape, the U.S. might have to choose between its ally, Japan, and its main geopolitical focus, China. Some Japanese say privately that if their country can stand up for itself, America is more likely to take its side.

Part of Abe's plan is to strengthen ties with America. He chalked up a success a few weeks ago when, after 17 years of deadlock, the governor of Okinawa agreed that work could begin on a new American base on the island. Abe also has created a national security council and, at the end of the year, set out a defence strategy that will reverse his predecessor's spending cuts and invest in ships, drones, submarines and a new amphibious brigade.

Even more controversially, Abe soon will launch a debate about Japan's constitution, drafted under American occupation after the war. Its Article 9 renounces warfare and the threat or use of force and is the reason Japan cannot act as other countries do. The chances are that Article 9 will be "reinterpreted" to mean Japan can, in fact, join the fight if its allies are attacked, or strike to pre-empt a North Korean missile.

With so much yet to do, Abe was wrong to visit the Yasukuni shrine, with its adjacent unpleasant and revisionist war museum. Morally, it is as if Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany were to pay her respects at a monument that honoured the Third Reich.

Politically, moreover, it is self-defeating. At home, some of the support he gains among ultra-nationalists will be offset by losses among other Japanese. Abroad, it has undone much of the good work he has done with America, which asked him not to go. Countries that suffered under Japanese imperialism, such as China and South Korea, understandably are horrified. Step by step, they fear, Japan is shedding the restraints that bound it after the war without having faced up to its crimes. In China, especially, Abe is feeding the suspicion.

In today's world it is hard to imagine a rebirth of Japanese militarism. The vast majority of Japanese would reject it, polls consistently find.

Even if ordinary Japanese wanted to be more aggressive, their country dedicates only about one per cent of its GDP to defence, even counting Abe's increase. That is not enough for Japan to throw its weight around Asia.

Abe does not need history to make his case for a normal Japan. The reason his country should be freer to act in its own defence is because it should make a dangerous part of the world more stable.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2014 A7

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