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Japan resurgent

Chatham House / Wikimedia Commons

This week’s visit to Australia by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe marks a further step in the resurgence of Japan as a global power. It is also a key event for both Australia and Japan in affirming new regional roles and relations.

Constrained by its post-WWII Constitution for some 70 years, Japan is now re-establishing itself as a conventional state. Under a ‘reinterpretation’ of Article 9 of the post-war Constitution just approved by the Japanese Cabinet, the country’s ‘self-defence forces’ are being reconstrued as conventional military forces which will be able to assist allies militarily. Limits on participation in UN-led peace-keeping operations have also been relaxed.

Reactions have been mixed, with a Chinese commentary suggesting that Abe is ‘dallying with the spectre of war’, and the Obama administration welcoming the change. Tony Abbott declared that the changes would make Japan ‘a stronger strategic partner for Australia’. Unspoken is the fact that this change will enable many of the tasks of US forces in Japan to be gradually assumed by the Japanese military. Defence budgets for both the Japan Self-Defence Force and the Japan Coast Guard have been enhanced.

There has long been discomfort across Japan over the limits in national power and action which the Allies placed upon the country following WWII and which were reflected in the 1946 Constitution.  Constitutional change to allow new roles for the Japanese military has long been advocated by Abe as well as by Junichiro Koizumi before him. Abe’s recent moves have struck a responsive chord across the nation, as have his efforts in pursuit of an economic ‘renaissance’.  

In addition, Japan’s external environment has also been conducive to domestic support (although not universal) for an increasingly assertive prime minister. The PRC’s stepped-up pursuit of maritime claims in the region, enormous expansion of military power, positioning of oil rigs in the South China Sea, and its ‘cartographic creep’ have caused concerns not only to Japan, but to polities across Asia.

This has resulted in it being easy for Japan to find friends and allies among Asia-Pacific nations, and the Abe administration has been making efforts to provide the nations of Southeast Asia with economic and strategic alternatives to a reliance on China. Such endeavours have been evident from the beginning of the Abe premiership, during the first year of which he visited all 10 ASEAN countries, offering economic packages and urging strategic dialogues. Japan stepped in quickly with donations after Typhoon Haiyan and subsequently promised 10 patrol boats to the Philippines.

Japan’s long-term relationship with Myanmar is also being restored, with Prime Minister Abe’s visit to that country in 2013—the first by a Japanese prime minister since 1977—seeing US$2.72 billion in debt cancelled and a new foreign assistance program inaugurated. Concurrently, Japanese manufacturing in Southeast Asia has been growing.

At last year’s Japan-ASEAN summit in Tokyo, Abe outlined to ASEAN state leaders Japan’s plans for cooperation with the region. During the summit, the Japanese Prime Minister pledged $20 billion in aid and loans to Southeast Asia. Stressing Japan’s ‘proactive pacifism’, Abe noted ‘together with ASEAN, I want to build the future of Asia where laws, rather than power, rule and people who work hard will be rewarded—which will lead to a prosperous society with mutual respect’. Beyond Southeast Asia, Japanese naval exercises have also been agreed with India and with Russia.

Western alliance members have also been encouraging Japan’s assertion of a new role within the region. The US and Japan are bound by the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, while these two countries are also tied to Australia through a Trilateral Strategic Dialogue. Both the US President and the Australian Prime Minister visited Tokyo in April 2014. During his visit, President Obama was unambiguous when he proclaimed ‘that our treaty commitment to Japan's security is absolute, and Article 5 covers all territories under Japan's administration, including the Senkaku Islands’. The Australian and Japanese leaders also agreed to hold bilateral talks at least twice a year. In June, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and  Defence Minister David Johnston noted before their visit to Japan, that the two countries ‘share strategic interests in regional peace and stability, underpinned by common democratic values and a commitment to the rule of law’. A month earlier, it was announced that Japan is planning to sell submarine technology to Australia in its first defence-related exports since World War II.

It is therefore clear that it is not business as usual in East Asia. Great changes are afoot, with Japan offering itself to polities both within and outside the region as a strategic and economic balancing force in the context of an increasingly assertive China. It is against this background that the Japanese Prime Minister is visiting Australia and being accorded great honours. This is more than a simple official visit. It is the affirmation of nascent East Asian structures.