TCS Daily

Japan Opens an Eye

By Kenneth Silber - March 14, 2003 12:00 AM

At first glance, it might seem that North Korea has played its hand deftly, provoking the United States when the U.S. is highly preoccupied with Iraq. In fact, North Korea's aggressive moves-stepping up its nuclear program, conducting missile tests, and challenging a U.S. surveillance plane-will likely turn out to be acts of folly, rife with unintended consequences. One such consequence is already evident and is a positive development overall (but not for North Korea's rulers): Japan is waking up to the implications of a dangerous world.

Japan has long struck a balance between the pacifism enshrined in its post-World War II constitution and the pragmatic need for a major nation to maintain military capabilities. But the balance has been shifting toward pragmatism for several years. Japan's role in the 1991 Gulf War-funding the coalition war effort, but not fighting-was a halting step toward greater engagement with security issues. North Korea's 1998 test of a long-range missile-by firing it over Japanese territory-spurred growing interest in a more proactive security policy.

In recent weeks, North Korea has tested shorter-range anti-ship missiles in the Sea of Japan. U.S. satellite reconnaissance has shown further launch preparations, which may be a prelude to another long-range missile flight over Japanese territory.

North Korea, for all its salience, is not the only threat to Japan's security. Japanese policymakers also must consider China, with its potential for regional hegemony, and the Persian Gulf, upon which Japan remains crucially dependent for oil. Terrorism, both international and domestic, poses a threat to Japan. Al Qaeda is known to be interested in disrupting oil shipments through Southeast Asia. The homegrown Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed chemical weapons in the Tokyo subway system in 1995.

Fortunately, Japanese policymakers show signs of taking their country's security very seriously. Consider some recent indications:

  • Japan is conducting joint missile-defense research with the United States, despite opposition from China and Russia. In February, officials said testing of a ship-based antimissile system is expected to start in 2005.

  • Japan is deploying its own spy satellites. Two reconnaissance satellites are scheduled for launch on March 28, and another two will go into orbit by March 2004.

  • Japan has supported U.S. efforts to impose a deadline on Iraq at the U.N. Security Council. Although not currently on the council, Japan put diplomatic pressure on Mexico and other undecided members to back the U.S. position.

  • Japanese military vessels are in the Arabian Sea providing refueling for U.S. and allied vessels engaged in antiterrorism efforts.

Public opinion in Japan retains a considerable degree of pacifism and isolationism, a lasting reaction against past militarism and the horrors of World War II. Yet ideas that once would not have gotten a hearing are being discussed. A defense official recently suggested that Japan would be justified in preemptively striking North Korea to prevent an imminent nuclear attack. It was recently revealed that Japanese defense officials compiled a report on the pros and cons of developing a nuclear arsenal in 1995, not long after the first crisis over North Korea's nuclear efforts. The one country that has been attacked with nuclear weapons maintained its policy against such weapons-for now.

Despite its severe economic problems of the past decade, Japan remains the world's second largest economy and a technological powerhouse in various fields. It has the wherewithal to be a formidable military power, and already is one in various respects. Although its neighbors have long viewed it warily because of its past, a resumption of militarism is an extremely remote possibility. Japan's growing focus on security is a positive development, for Japan and the international community more broadly. It certainly is a positive development for the U.S., which needs capable allies.

After Pearl Harbor, Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto reportedly said "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." The quote actually may be apocryphal, but it's an apt description of the U.S. response to being attacked-in 1941 and 2001. However, it is better for countries to awaken to threats before they are actually attacked. The rogue states and terror networks of the world have awakened America, and have started to awaken Japan as well.

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