There has also been alarm about Japan’s new energy policy. In particular, some of its neighbors worry Tokyo recently amending Atomic Energy Basic Law to identify nuclear power as “a national security” concern. This doesn’t mean that Tokyo is hell bent on acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, as some have suggested. Rather, it means reliable supplies of energy are indeed a matter of national security. An advisory panel has endorsed the exercise of the right of collective self-defense, but the Cabinet Legislation Bureau has ruled out any reinterpretation of the charter to permit such a move without actually changing the constitution. Don’t hold your breath. And finally, as a reminder of how potent obstacles are and how sensitive security policy remains, the government has shelved legislation to change rules of engagement for the Self-Defense Forces as they participate in peacekeeping activities. They still aren’t allowed to shoot unless they are fired upon first. Add the public’s deeply ingrained pacifism and general budget restraints, and the prospect of a militarized, aggressive Japan looks unconnected to reality.
Efforts to put Japanese defense thinking in context frequently fall on deaf ears in Asia. Rather than highlight the white paper’s identification of South Korea as the country that “shares the closest relationship with Japan historically and in various areas such as economy and culture,” Koreans focus on language that says Japan retains a claim to Takeshima – the islands that Korea holds as Dokdo. The white paper also begins with a positive assessment of China’s evolution, noting that Japan “welcomes the fact that China, which is growing into a big power, has started playing a major role in the world and the region in both name and reality.” Meanwhile, Beijing counters that Japan is playing with fire when it reasserts its claim to the Senkaku/Daoyutai islands. Chinese analysts liken Japan to North Korea, insisting that the tail threatens to wag the dog and warning that Tokyo could drag the U.S. into a conflict with China over the disputed territory.
Those claims aren’t just disingenuous and the obstinacy isn’t just frustrating – they are dangerous. The misreading of Japanese intentions filtered through the lens of history and political correctness – Korean and Chinese analysts privately agree with this analysis, but won’t say so in a public setting – rattles neighbors and has the potential to trigger a cycle of action and reaction. Even though every nation in Northeast Asia proclaims its own benign intentions, it sees its neighbors’ actions as demanding a response, a situation that looks alarmingly like a security dilemma. So, even if my characterization of Japanese intentions is correct, the misinterpretations and reactions that might be triggered could destabilize the region.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
This dynamic is another reason why it is so important for Japan to build stronger ties with South Korea. Apart from the goals, interests, and values they share, and the ability of the two nations to leverage their strengths when they work together, sustained cooperation and collaboration – the planning perhaps even more than the actual doing – is a confidence building measure that can dampen tensions. These measures remind the Japanese that they are not surrounded by hostile nations.
Of course it is important for Koreans to better understand Japanese thinking and behavior. But it is equally (if not more) valuable for Japan to know that it is not isolated within the region, and that it has a partner with which it can work with and that seeks to engage Tokyo as well. This is an important vote of confidence for Japan, one that will help keep it outward-oriented when domestic pressures demand an inward focus. This confidence will diminish Japan’s fears that the regional security environment, while complex, is not hostile to Japan. While Japan continues to tread a well-worn path in its security policy, isolation and intimidation could make the currently unfounded fears of Japan’s neighbors quite real.
Brad Glosserman is the executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS.
This article was originally published by Pacific Forum CSIS PacNet here, and represents the views of the respective author.