The East China sea has been filled with tension for some time now, mainly due to the Chinese-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku islands. The Senkaku Islands are a small group of uninhabited islands located northeast of Taiwan, that have been under Japanese control since 1972. China doesn’t recognize this and have included the islands into Chinese territory, thereby altering the regional status quo. Japan is now seeking, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to change its long-term pacifist constitution, in order to be able to respond to these provocations. This would give Japan the right to use force as a means of settling international disputes.
During World War II the world witnessed the vicious and brutal nature of Japanese militarism. War crimes were carried out by Japanese imperial forces in both China and Korea. However, after their defeat in World War II, a new Japanese constitution was drafted in 1947, by the Americans, within which Article 9 prevents future Japanese militarism. Article 9 states that Japan is;
”Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”
The use of the word pacifist is somewhat misleading, and it is probably better to refer to it as ”anti-militarism” because Japan have defense forces, although their actions are limited. The Japanese people have until recently, generally seen the military as an unnecessary expense. However, this changed after the misfortunes of 2011 when Japan experienced an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. The Japanese defense forces took an active role in rescue operations and providing protection, and were later perceived as heroes by the public, restoring some support to the military.
This could be one of the reasons why Shinzo Abe´s policies are well supported by public opinion. But Abe has also been criticized for his policies, and the way he has executed them. One such case is the law he pushed through parliament tightening the grip on state secrets. This law made military cooperation, arms deals and surveillance easier as well as limiting investigative journalism; this may also conflict with the freedom of information law. Reducing government transparency erodes one of the cornerstones of a functioning democratic state.
Abe is trying to restore national pride, which is being perceived by some as nationalism. Abe has instructed the Education ministry to approve only school-textbooks that promote patriotism, which move away from describing the violent and tragic chapters of history, particularly during World War II. Abe and the conservative right wing Liberal Democracy Party (LDP) are heavily promoting “traditional values” and a “normal” security policy. Before the New Year, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Japanese soldiers who died during WW2, some of whom were war criminals; this has sparked anger in not only China and Korea, but also America, who have responded with disappointment to Abe’s attempt to “beautify violence”.
One might understand why the people of Japan feel the need for a stronger military, seeing China’s economic and military power reaching high levels, and not to forget the present threat from North Korea.. Both Korea and China have made it in their national policy to keep the memories of Imperial Japan alive, making relations between the countries bitter.
The Senkaku islands are part of the US- Japan Defense act, which would therefore involve America if the dispute turns violent. The US signaled that they will not accept China’s claim by unannounced flying bomb planes into the “new” Chinese air-defence zone. The US-Japan alliance is strong but there is probably still need for a Japanese military. There is a worry that America will not be able to help in a time of crisis, because they might be distracted by the Middle East or unable to become involved due to financial issues. There is another dilemma for America, because it is also a devoted ally to South Korean. In case of conflict between Japan and South Korea, America will be in a difficult situation, in which they are likely to lose at least one ally, leading to a decreased influence in East Asia. This would leave China as the strongest powerhouse in the region, something the US does not want to see, as it might challenge the liberal international norms the they have spent many years trying to establish.
Only time will tell what the results will be of the current Japanese policies. Pacifism is still rooted in Japanese society and there is a lot of resistance to a constitutional change, both in Japan and abroad. Although there has been a lot of rivalry between Japan and its neighbors there is still a wide cooperation among these countries. Their economies are very interdependent and seeing as Japan is still struggling with deflation – and China is starting to experience problems with its economic growth – it seems both countries have more important things to focus on than mutual provocation.