While this is happening, China takes notice of the increasingly blatant independence rhetoric from Taiwan’s government. Since the “One China” policy, which holds that sooner or later Taiwan must rejoin the mainland, is holy writ in China, the government in Beijing decides that it’s time to act. Taking advantage of America’s distraction, the Chinese prepare to coerce the truculent island. U.S. intelligence satellites pick up unmistakable evidence of the impending assault. In hopes of heading it off, the U.S. sends a portion of its Pacific fleet into the Taiwan Strait, as it did in 1996 after saber-rattling by the Chinese. Soon, the satellites show something even worse to worry about: The unpredictable North Korean regime, sensing an opportunity amidst the chaos to flex its muscles, has begun preparations to launch intermediate-range missiles, which could hit American bases in Japan.

You do not need this kind of worst-case scenario to see that the American military is already spread pretty thin in Asia. Some generals are warning that fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq at the same time could dangerously stretch America’s military–despite huge increases in defense spending the administration has approved. Meanwhile, the U.S. already has Special Forces on the ground in the Philippines and Thailand; piracy and terrorism are becoming increasingly serious problems in Southeast Asia; the 2000-2001 dtente between North and South Korea is collapsing; and China is modernizing its army.

Asia, like Europe, is of obvious economic importance to the U.S. and the world as a whole. But unlike Europe, it is not connected to any stabilizing political or economic unit. Fortunately, expanding even further the American presence in the region is not the only way to ensure stability. Instead, the U.S. should subtly push Japan to become a more modern military power, joining Europe and America in an “Axis of Good.”

To anyone familiar with World War II, the idea of a more militarized Japan may sound creepy, if not downright crazy. That has been the prevailing assumption in Asia for more than 50 years. But the idea that old adversaries can collaborate has obvious precedents around the world. The most recent evidence is the emerging alliance between Russia and the United States. For the last half century, Americans, Japanese, and Asians in general have shared an operational understanding that Japan was a special case: The one former military power that couldn’t really ever be trusted with weapons again. Whatever the justice of that initial assumption, it’s become outdated. It’s time for a fresh look at Japanese rearmament and a fresh conclusion that the Japanese can best advance the cause of peace not as pacifists but as responsible soldiers.

The Japanese and their neighbors have good reason to feel nervous about the return of the Japanese military. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the country developed into an industrialized nation, and, fearing that it would be colonized like nearly all its neighbors, organized itself from top to bottom on a quasi-military model. The “quasi” part disappeared in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when a clique of extremely hawkish leaders built a massive army and whipped up sentiment for regional domination. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, Japan’s Imperial Army conquered a wide swath of territory in East Asia. Either out of ignorance about the probable American reaction or a belief that a showdown with the United States was inevitable, Japan’s military thought its chances would be best if it struck first, and so it did, at Pearl Harbor.

From Chinese Manchuria in the north to the Indonesian islands in the south, Asia rings with tales of atrocities during the Japanese occupations of the 1930s and 1940s. Japanese soldiers competed in “contests” to see how many Chinese civilians they could kill, and the Imperial Army conscripted thousands of its subject peoples to serve as “comfort women” providing sexual services to Japanese troops. A vastly higher percentage of American prisoners of war died in Japanese than in German captivity, and in Manchuria, the Imperial forces created “Unit 731”, a secret group which conducted lethal medical experiments on more than 3,000 prisoners.

Upon defeating Japan, the United States occupied the country and essentially imposed a pacifist constitution, as it did on Germany. The new constitution restricted certain powers of the state and guaranteed civil rights. The now-famous “Article 9” of the Japanese constitution could be read as ensuring permanent non-combatant status for Japan. Its best known provision says:

Ensuring that Japan didn’t storm through Asia was one of America’s post-war objectives. But the United States was even more concerned that Stalin’s Soviet Union not storm through the same region instead. So, in moves that historians have debated ever since, the U.S. avoided in Japan counterparts to the “denazification” that was imposed on Germany. Though there were trials of some top leaders, many other members of the wartime and pre-war Japanese governments soon found their way back into service. And as part of the bargain, Japan agreed to serve as what was later called the “unsinkable aircraft carrier”–that is, as a base for U.S. troops in Asia.

Even as memories of wartime defeat and devastation have faded, most of the Japanese public has continued to believe that Japan should not abrogate Article 9. In reality, though, Japanese policy was at odds with Article 9 by the 1970s. Spending on the military (oops, the “Self Defense Forces”) rose steadily. By the late 1980s, at the height of Japan’s economic boom, its military (sorry, “self defense”) budget was one of the four or five largest in the world. The line was drawn at overseas deployment of Self Defense Forces (SDF) troops. Many Tokyo leaders argued that the SDF could not send troops abroad, help the U.S. defend allies of Japan and America, or even protect the Japanese islands, a theory known as “collective self-defense,” if a naval battle occurred outside Japan’s territorial waters.

Though some American policy-makers had pushed for Japan to slowly rearm in the 1950s, few U.S. leaders supported Japanese military normalization. American politics was dominated by a generation of leaders who had fought in World War II. These leaders’ memories were abetted by worries that Japan’s rapid economic growth would ultimately be transformed into military power.

But times changed. With the end of the Cold War, the balance of power in East Asia was altered. Meanwhile, as Japan’s economy stagnated throughout the 1990s, fears of Japanese might dissipated. Instead, China’s economy boomed, giving Beijing the confidence to upgrade its armed forces. Indeed, Beijing’s defense budget rose 17.6 percent last year.

Beijing has made countering American and Japanese diplomacy in Southeast Asia its top strategic priority. Meanwhile, Chinese vessels frequently have made incursions into Japanese territorial waters, and the Chinese military has been actively constructing new missile bases near the Taiwan Strait.

As China became more powerful, the Clinton administration greatly accelerated the engagement policy that the five previous administrations had followed. Reasoning that economic growth within a rules-based world trading system would lead China eventually to adopt democratic reforms and a less-belligerent foreign policy, the president actively promoted trade with Beijing and sometimes ignored China’s forays into Philippine and Japanese waters. (The Clinton administration did respond forcefully in 1996 when China threatened Taiwan.) Some conservative foreign policy experts were infuriated by Clinton’s willingness to ignore Tokyo in favor of Beijing. Over the course of the decade, these hawks began to assert themselves at top think-tanks in Washington and to brainstorm ways to control China’s rising influence. Of these experts, Richard Armitage probably was the best known, although the group also included Michael Green, then a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Paul Wolfowitz, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

While China has gained power, less predictable actors also have threatened East Asia. Since 1989, an increasingly fragile North Korea, probably armed with weapons of mass destruction, has periodically threatened its neighbors. Farther south, the Philippines and Indonesia have become breeding grounds for Islamic militant groups, while Indonesia has threatened to implode into chaos.

What could Japan do to help? It is already doing something. Despite the ban on out-of-country combat, over the past four decades, Japan has upgraded its forces, professionalizing the SDF without abrogating its constitution. Japan has slowly increased its defense budget, spending $45 billion in 2000 to create a military that numbers 250,000 well-trained troops. (By comparison, the United Kingdom spent $34.8 billion on its military in 2001.) Japan’s recession actually has helped the SDF: Rising unemployment has made it easier for the armed forces to attract qualified personnel. And throughout the 1990s, the SDF has gained experience by taking part in peacekeeping missions in Cambodia, Mozambique, and Rwanda. Tokyo also has allocated new money for long-range transport airplanes that could help Japan project force across East Asia.

Having already participated in several missions, Japanese troops could be designated lead peacekeepers in Asia, to be used whenever there is a peacekeeping assignment in the region. More important, a declaration of Japan’s willingness to commit forces throughout Asia, in collective self-defense of Japan, could give China extra reason to pause before becoming too aggressive, especially in the Spratly Islands, a strategically important South China Sea archipelago. Over the past five years, China has staked its claim to the Spratlys, allegedly setting up military installations in the islands. A larger Japanese navy might deter China’s still low-tech navy from moving more forces into the Spratlys. What’s more, if a battle ever broke out between China and Taiwan, Japan could provide crucial support to combatants allied with America. Japan’s highly professional navy also could help the U.S. and Southeast Asian states combat the movement of terrorists and high-seas piracy, which has become a serious threat to commerce in the waters off Indonesia.

Japanese troops, as well as long-range transport aircraft, also could prove vital if the United States ever has to defend Japanese waters. Without Japanese participation in collective self-defense of the waters near Japan, it would be extremely difficult for the American military to deter simultaneous Chinese moves towards Taiwan and North Korean threats towards South Korea or Japan.

Japan also could provide important intelligence to the United States on places such as North Korea, Taiwan, China, and Burma–countries that American spooks have shown little ability to understand. “There are plenty of Japanese in places where we don’t have access . . . and we should be able to get quality intelligence from them,” says Paul Giarra, a Japan expert who previously worked for the Department of Defense.

All these things could happen–if Japan’s neighbors could tolerate the idea of a more assertive Japanese military, and if Japan’s own people could accept the same prospect. The obstacles to normalized relations in Asia are immense. China, South Korea, and other nations once colonized by Emperor Hirohito’s legions remain extremely wary of Japan developing into a true military power. Last fall, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had to cancel a trip to the South Korean parliament after lawmakers in Seoul, angry that Japan’s role in the war on terror could mean more militarism in general, threatened to physically bar him from the chamber. Meanwhile, China’s press frequently runs articles reminding the public of wartime atrocities and warning that China will react strongly to Japanese military normalization. It is hard to tell how many of these expressed fears are sincere, and how many are clever attempts to “mau-mau” the Japanese on their point of greatest vulnerability. Either way, they are frequently heard.

Obstacles loom large in Japan as well. The commitment to pacifism remains not only a key component of the Japanese constitution but also a major element in Japan’s post-WWII identity. Older generations of Japanese still bitterly remember the destruction that the war wrought on a generation of Japan’s young men and women. As Eugene Matthews, senior fellow in Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, has noted: “Contrary to the conventional wisdom in America, it is the fear of the military-mindedness of 1930s Japan, not the wish to press the economic advantages of not having to maintain a modern military, that is the reason why the limited defense policy is not challenged [in Japan].”

What’s more, even within U.S. national security circles, there is disagreement over whether the benefits of a more-normal Japanese military are worth the consternation such a military would cause. Several of the hawks most critical of Clinton’s Japan/China policies now occupy top posts in the Bush administration, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. While they are pressing the case for a normalized Japanese military, many veterans in the bureaucracies at State and the Pentagon are dubious, and their concerns go beyond the normal desire not to upset a comfortable status quo. Though the hawks deny it, in the long term Japanese military normalization may lead to rifts between Washington and Tokyo, notes Steven Clemons, a Japan expert at the New America Foundation. “American leaders want Japan’s military to modernize in order to strengthen our alliance with Tokyo, but conservative Japanese politicians want to use modernization to make Japan a more independent military power,” says Clemons. “It is extremely incremental, and for now the risk of rifts is extremely small, but there are noticeable rumblings of Japanese willingness to separate their interests from America’s interests.”

Yet as the geostrategic landscape in Asia changes and begins to favor China, these obstacles are slowly shrinking. Over the past decade, a younger generation of politicians has come to dominate American and Japanese politics. For these men and women, the legacy of the Second World War no longer is as much of a factor in their thinking. This change is noticeable in Japan, where most politicians clearly recall the Gulf War, in which Japan, one of the largest donors to global organizations like the United Nations, was humiliated by contributing little to the actual campaign except six minesweepers which arrived after the fighting was over. Responding to politicians who chafed at Japan’s lack of military presence in the desert, the Japanese public began to consider the possibility of revamping the SDF.

For many Japanese, September 11 was a turning point that catalyzed all of these trends–the passing of the WWII generation, China’s rise, Japan’s quiet, slow military expansion–and forced the Japanese public to openly discuss whether, and how Japan could become a more normal military power. Certainly, most Japanese do not support anything remotely resembling the military build-up that led to World War II, but some citizens believe the SDF today is too limited in scope, mission, and size. “Japanese public opinion was moving already, but September 11 seemed to dramatize that anyone was vulnerable, and Japan couldn’t sit on the sidelines in a post-September war,” says Clemons. Indeed, though Japanese forces had not left their bases during wartime since 1945, in a poll taken last September by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, 63 percent of respondents supported dispatching the SDF abroad in support of the war on terrorism. Responding to public opinion and American pressure, Koizumi convinced his compatriots to approve two anti-terrorism bills allowing the Japanese military to provide logistical support to the war on terror. Some Japanese politicians even began discussing whether Japan should obtain nuclear weapons as a deterrent against China.

Perhaps most important, some Japanese leaders have begun to demonstrate repentance for their country’s behavior in WWII and comprehend the potential impact of military normalization on Japan’s neighbors. Last October, Koizumi became the first prime minister to express “heartfelt apologies” for Japan’s actions during WWII. Such apologies can have an impact, especially since many Asian countries these days are more afraid of China than of Japan. Indeed, after the campaign in Afghanistan began, both Australia and Singapore welcomed the deployment of Japanese ships to provide support to the United States.

To upgrade its military, the Japanese public would have to acknowledge what everyone finds convenient to ignore: that Japan needs to reinterpret or amend its constitution, a potentially revolutionary change. As it stands, Article 9 is inconsistent with Japan’s emerging place in Asian security. Conceivably, Japan could slip an expanded defense role past the strictures of Article 9. To do so, the Japanese parliament, or Diet, would have to affirm that the SDF clearly have the right to fire on vessels entering its waters, provide support to U.S. troops in Asia (i.e., in Afghanistan), and engage in collective self-defense. Engaging in collective self-defense would mean helping the U.S. defend waters, airspace, and land near Japan but not within Japan’s territory; and assisting America’s military in supporting key allies–i.e., South Korea–who themselves help preserve Japan’s safety.

If Japan were to amend or reinterpret its constitution, it would also have to minimize the fears that would stoke in China and other Asian countries by apologizing more completely for its WWII behavior. Koizumi has taken many important steps towards a fuller apology, but other Asian countries would welcome new Japanese school textbooks that actually covered Japan’s WWII crimes and a fuller hearing, in Japanese courts, of lawsuits by former comfort women.

To blunt opposition to normalization within Japan, as well as tensions between the SDF and the Pentagon, America would have to show respect to and increase coordination with the SDF. Former officers who served in Asia complain that, though more than 45,000 American troops are stationed in Japan, top commanders have little interaction with their Japanese counterparts, and enlisted men too often have little contact, except for embarrassing incidents with Japanese women.

This must change. Top American commanders should hold frequent consultations with Japanese strategic thinkers and defense administrators, inform Japanese leaders in advance of any new U.S. initiatives (like President Clinton rewording America’s Taiwan policy during a visit to Beijing), and provide Japan with official representation at the Pentagon. Developing specific, transparent targets for a Japanese military revamp also would be crucial. “While we’re pushing Japan to become more involved in collective self-defense, we should lay out a checklist of exactly what we mean: how many Japanese aircraft, exactly what role Japanese forces would play in patrols in Asian waters, whether and what kind of nuclear weapons Japan might build,” says Giarra. “With each step towards Japanese military modernization, Washington should ask whether this change will build our alliance with Japan or detract from it.”

America will have to use enormous skill and subtlety in pushing Tokyo to normalize its military, and its neighbors into accepting it–the kind of skill that persuaded Russia to accept an expanded NATO. In fact, to prevent Thailand, South Korea, and other Asian allies from hitting the ceiling over Japanese normalization, the U.S. could work with Asian partners to develop a multilateral, NATO-like structure in Asia suitable for combating 21st-century threats. Though an Asian NATO is something few administration hawks have yet discussed, the framework for such an organization has been built. Asian countries themselves have developed a multilateral security talking-shop entitled the Asean Regional Forum, in which the United States is represented.

Perhaps most important, Washington can emphasize that by having a more normal military, Japan would only be taking its place as a modern, peace-loving democracy. Indeed, having Japan operate alongside the United States, Britain, Germany, and other nations in a long-running war on terror or other conflict would demonstrate that membership in an “Axis of Good” of industrial democracies that attempt to improve global relations is not limited to Western countries. In an era where symbols matter immensely to a hyper-connected global audience, and the United States receives withering criticism for acting unilaterally, involving Japan more closely in American military and diplomatic planning, while remaining sensitive to Asian memories of WWII, would blunt foreign opposition to U.S. global strategy.

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