Despite popular protests, noisy political opposition in parliament and falling approval ratings, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pressing ahead with the overhaul of Japan’s defence policies. Last week, the lower House of the Diet approved 11 pieces of legislation that allow Tokyo to take on a larger military role in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean. While the legislation will face difficulties in the upper House, Abe is well-positioned to turn this into law when the bill returns to the lower House.
It’s not often that one sees leaders take risks in the pursuit of a political conviction. Abe, a rare exception, has been steadfast in his determination to remove the extraordinary restraints on Japan’s military imposed by its post-war constitution. Abe wants Japan to be a “normal” power, 70 years after World War II.
Going against the grain of entrenched pacifism in Japan, Abe is making the case that Tokyo should respond to the rapidly unfolding geopolitical changes in the region, especially growing Chinese assertiveness in the maritime territorial disputes. Abe is also conscious of the fact that America is now having a hard time sustaining its primacy in the region amid China’s expanding military capabilities. Washington has been pressing Tokyo to take greater responsibility for regional security and share some of America’s burden. The constitutional changes proposed by Abe will make it easier for Japan to offer military support to the US and regional partners. Until now, the constitution has only allowed the use of Japan’s armed forces in self-defence.
In a predictable response, China cautioned Japan against abandoning its traditional restraint and warned the region against the return of Japanese militarism. Beijing has long used Japan’s colonial past to put Tokyo on the defensive. In recent months, it has sought to mobilise Asian and international opinion against Abe’s policies.
Abe, however, has refused to back down and persisted in his efforts to reform Japanese defence policy and make it more robust. While he has faced some resistance at home, Abe appears confident that the Japanese people will eventually rally round to his view.
Externally, besides a stronger military alliance with the US, Abe has sought more intensive security partnerships with other countries in the region, including Australia and India. While his policies have generated much negative reaction in South Korea, there is greater concern in Southeast Asia about China’s regional policies than Japan’s. Despite suffering Japan’s imperial aggression, Vietnam and the Philippines are actively seeking defence cooperation with Tokyo. This is not surprising since Hanoi and Manila today face the brunt of Beijing’s muscular policies in the South China Sea.
In India, the NDA government has shed the UPA’s defensiveness on security cooperation with Japan. Although the strategic partnership with Japan was launched by the UPA when Abe was PM in 2006-07, New Delhi seemed reluctant to go too far. It was determined to not give any offence to Beijing.
The Narendra Modi government has taken a very different approach — intensifying the partnership with both China and Japan, but refusing to hold back with one for fear of upsetting the other. The last few weeks have seen Delhi announce the renewed participation of Japan in the annual Malabar exercises in the Indian Ocean that India has been conducting with the US for more than two decades.
After China protested against the 2007 edition of Malabar that saw the participation of Japan, Australia and Singapore along with the US, the UPA government insisted that Malabar must remain bilateral in the Indian Ocean. The NDA has reversed that decision. Modi’s Delhi is no longer willing to give Beijing a veto over its defence partnerships. Delhi is now emulating Beijing, which does not defer to India’s sensitivities on its all-weather security partnership with Pakistan.
There are also reports that Delhi has agreed to elevate its trilateral political consultations with Washington and Tokyo, which began in 2010 among senior officials of the three countries, to the ministerial level. The first round of talks between the three foreign ministers is expected to take place in September on the margins of the UN General Assembly.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.
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