Japan’s Biggest Challenge Since 1945

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World War II has never really ended for Japan.  Sixty-eight years after the battleship USS Missouri sailed into Tokyo Bay to receive the surrender of the Japanese Empire, Japan still behaves like a meek, defeated nation rather than one of the world’s great powers – and great peoples.

Economically, Japan is a giant, albeit a staggering one. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party just secured full control of both houses of Japan’s  parliament. Abe’s “three-arrow”  reform program has injected new life in Japan’s formerly stagnant $5 trillion economy industry and driven down the over-valued yen.

But militarily, Japan remains a midget.   Its so-called Self-Defense Forces were designed to stop a Soviet amphibious invasion of the northern islands.  Japan’s US-written pacifist constitution prohibits all offensive military operations or exports of arms and military equipment.  

The 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty laid the foundation of relations between Washington and Tokyo.  The US in effect pledged to defend Japan against all comers; amusingly, Japan pledged to help defend the US – but banned from sending military forces abroad.   The key to the treaty was the establishment of permanent US air, land, and sea bases in Japan.   They remain, half a century later.

Japan thus became a giant US aircraft carrier from which it dominates highly strategic North Asia.  In exchange, Japanese industry was given open access to the US market, thus laying the base of Japan’s economic upsurge of the 1960’s.  South Korea enjoyed a similar deal.

This cozy arrangement is now being challenged by the rapid rise of China’s military and economic power. Just this week, a Chinese military aircraft that overflew waters near Japan’s Okinawa, provoked an uproar in Japan.

Over the past year, Chinese aircraft, warships and submarines have challenged Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, ruled by Japan since the late 19th century, but now claimed by China.  Even more worrying, China has begun asserting claims to Okinawa on the basis that its independent rulers paid tribute to Imperial China in the past.

These claims, and China’s rapid development of a true blue water navy and long-ranged aircraft that can project power into the Pacific, and Beijing’s increasingly assertive claims to all the East China Sea, are deeply alarming Japan.

As the nationalist drums beat ever louder in China, Japanese increasingly feel vulnerable.  Japanese are asking whether the US would really risk nuclear war with China to defend Japan’s  Senkaku or Ryukyu Islands.

China, for its part,  sees its rising naval and maritime power constricted, even threatened, by the Japanese archipelago that acts as a giant barrier, blocking China from the open Pacific. 

The Soviet Union faced a similar problem accessing the North Pacific.

For China’s fleets and oil tankers, getting to the Pacific means running the barrier of Japan’s home islands, the Senkaku and Ryukyus (Okinawa), or going through the Philippine’s narrow Luzon Strait.  To no surprise, the US is negotiating with Manila to reopen the Subic Bay naval and air base that the US vacated in 1992.

China is clearly trying to muscle its way out of the East China Sea and into the Pacific.  But, on a grander strategic scale, China is trying to demean and punish Japan for World War II by making it lose face over the naval and air challenges, and showing Asia who is now the big dog on the block.

Japan is perfectly aware of this grave challenge but undecided on how to respond to the biggest threat it has faced since World War II.   The choices seem to be: hope the US will block China’s expansion; or abandon the US-imposed strictures from the post-war period, develop a real foreign policy, and create credible military forces – including nuclear arms.

Doing so means casting off Japan’s eternal bowed head, apologetic attitudes and obedience to its former WWII enemies.   That would be a vast sea change in Japan, where most people appear happy to accept the status quo – or at least until another big military scare from China.

The naming of Caroline Kennedy, a major Obama supporter and donor, as ambassador to Japan is hardly the right person in these troubled times.

Japan has to cast off  its cross of shame over having been defeated in the 1940’s and renew its national spirit.

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