Americans and Asians should applaud Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s impassioned speech before the Japanese Diet urging its support for “the most drastic reforms since the end of World War II.” The intended reform that most impacts regional security is a change to Article 9 of the Constitution which restricts Japan’s military capabilities.
Removing some of the limitations on Japan’s national defense posture would enable America’s key Asian ally to play an even more positive and proactive role in regional and international security. An economically and militarily strong Japan harnessed to democratic principles is an inherently good thing for the region and the world.
Abe was attempting to assuage concerns about a resurgent Japan when he assured all that Japan has learned the painful lessons of its experiences in the last century. “Japan has earnestly built up a free and democratic nation based on feelings of deep remorse regarding WWII and contributed to peace and prosperity in the world. Taking pride in this, we must be a nation that contributes even more to peace and stability in the world.”
Japanese officials have made similar statements in the past but this time Japan’s neighbors have good reason to finally and unconditionally accept Abe’s words as an official apology and put the past to rest, particularly as Abe expressed it in the context of Japan’s emergence as a democratic nation. (The one remaining unresolved issue is compensation for the “comfort women.”)
Some will take issue with Abe’s statement regarding the overseas Japanese war dead whose remains he has pledged to repatriate: “The peace we enjoy today is built upon the precious sacrifices of those who lost their lives, being anxious about the fate of their homeland and wishing for the happiness of their families.”
We can grant on a human level that the ordinary Japanese soldier was motivated by the same love of family and country as the members of the Allied forces that sacrificed to defeat them. But there is no denying that the calamity was created by Japan’s war planners of that period.
Yet, in a larger sense, Abe is right that the war, horribly ruinous as it was, did pave the way for Japan’s emergence as a democratic nation rather than perpetuating the military dictatorship it had been for prior decades. If only Japan’s transition to democracy had occurred as bloodlessly as those in Eastern Europe, South Korea, and Taiwan.
Still, Japan is the thriving and peace-loving democracy it is, and the world is better for it. In that context, a Japan even more willing and able to contribute to regional and international peace is a development that all should welcome.
That includes the people and government of China. The Chinese public should be glad to see another benign force, like that of the United States, positioned to deter their own leaders’ dangerous military adventurism. Even Xi Jinping, if only secretly in his heart, may well embrace the additional constraint on potential miscalculation, saving him from the consequences of his worst instincts.
Significantly, Abe referred more than once to Japan’s foreign policy as “proactive diplomacy” rather than “proactive pacifism” or “active pacifism,” terms he and members of his administration have employed previously. That is a good thing, given pacifism’s unfortunate history in confronting nations with aggressive tendencies. North Korea and China need no further invitation for their assertive adventurism.
Abe harked back to the Meiji Restoration as an early model for the modernization of Japan’s political institutions, society, and economy. The founders of the Meiji State, Abe noted, set the example of Japan’s determination “to become a nation that participates actively in world affairs.” Some of Japan’s neighbors will recall that that was also the period of Japan’s takeover of Korea and Taiwan and was followed by Japan’s expansionist ambitions in the 1930s and 1940s.
Abe anticipated such concerns when he stated: “The path Japan has taken as a peace-loving nation will remain unchanged. Against the backdrop of a dramatically changing international situation, we will make this into a path which we follow even more tenaciously.” In Meiji Restoration 2.0, Abe seeks to emulate the benign, progressive aspects of that earlier experience, not its tragic ending. It is China that is pursuing an aggressive posture reminiscent of the Japanese Empire. The nine-dash line is rapidly becoming China’s version of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Where Japan’s army created facts on the ground, China is creating actual ground, building new islands to extend its military reach.
While similar soothing words were uttered by Japanese leaders in that earlier period – and are heard from Chinese leaders today – the difference is that Japan’s contemporary commitments are coming from the leader of an exemplary democratic nation. That makes all the difference in the world. The region should welcome and support Mr. Abe in his quest – and reserve its angst for the two authoritarian Asian states that do threaten the peace and require deterrence from a reinvigorated Japan-United States alliance.
Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of Defense from 2005-2006.