By George Friedman
Yesterday was the 69th anniversary of Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution. Thousands attended rallies in Tokyo both in support of and against changing Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which outlaws war. It states: “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. In order 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 Japanese constitution was drafted by Douglas MacArthur and implemented in 1947. The United States quickly regretted inserting Article 9. When the Korean War broke out, the United States wanted to reposition Japan as Germany was being repositioned. It wanted Japan to develop a military force that would be commanded in the context of an alliance, in other words, not fully in the control of Japan. The Germans accepted this formula because they were at risk of Soviet invasion, and countering this threat required a substantial force raised from an alliance, NATO. Germany needed NATO and therefore had to go along with it. The Japanese were in a different position. The Japanese did not regard the Korean War as a direct threat and refused to violate their constitution.
Japan has used this clause as a legal block to participating in any subsequent American war, such as Vietnam or Desert Storm, though Tokyo did provide a small number of troops for humanitarian assistance in the Second Iraq War. At the same time, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled in 1959 that Japan had an inherent right to defend itself and this could not be overridden by Article 9. As a result, Japan has substantial air, sea and ground forces that are prevented from participating in coalition combat operations. In a way, Japan had the best of all worlds. It had sufficient military forces to deter invasion. It had a strong defense agreement with the United States, which recognized Japan’s constitutional limitations, and had significant forces deployed there. Japan was secure without being compelled to join the United States in war.
The revision of Article 9, therefore, is not about whether Japan will have military forces. It already does. It is about how they can be used. A recent poll by Kyodo News found that 56.5 percent of respondents were against revising Article 9. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that the revision would allow Japan to defend itself, but that has already been affirmed by the Supreme Court. Authorizing the acquisition of military forces has already happened. While 56.5 percent is not an overwhelming majority, it still represents a split between the public and the government.
The public is afraid that the government wants the right to deploy Japanese forces in combat zones. If it does, then the question is why the Japanese government would give up a pretty good thing. The Japanese have the protection of the United States by treaty. That means that threats like North Korea or China will be met by the Americans and not by the Japanese. Why then are the Japanese abandoning the strategic cocoon and accepting risk?
Japan has one overarching strategic risk – it has almost no natural resources. It must import almost 100 percent of its oil, iron ore, bauxite and pretty much everything else. All of these resources, particularly oil coming from the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Malacca, must move through the South and East China seas, over which China is asserting dominance. There are potentially other routes eastward and through the western Pacific, but even these would be at risk if China managed to take control of the South China Sea.
The Japanese depend on the United States to contain China. Indeed, U.S. naval and air power dwarfs anything that China can bring to bear. But in many ways, these waterways are a secondary interest to the United States. If the Chinese dominated them, it would pose a problem, but not an existential one. For Japan, access to these sea lanes is an existential threat. If China blockaded them, it would strangle Japan as an industrial state.
This asymmetry of interests means that Japan depends on the United States for its existence as an industrial power. Should the United States decide that an accommodation with China or refusing to engage China militarily was in its interest, Japan would be in a disastrous position.
The Japanese also understand that, in order to manage the United States, being an indispensable military partner is critical. As the only global power, the United States has engaged in frequent wars. Countries that have contributed to those wars, like the United Kingdom and Australia, have maintained a special relationship with the United States. It has given them leverage as well as political support. If Japan is to maintain its dependency on the United States, it needs to share risks. During the Cold War, Japan’s geographic position blocked the Soviet fleet at Vladivostok. That made Japan indispensable. In the current environment, Japan’s significance to the U.S. has declined. Modifying Article 9 would allow Japan to create American dependency and therefore increase the likelihood that the U.S. would take risks for Japan.
The Japanese public is divided. There are those who wish to modify the constitution in order to put World War II behind them and resemble other industrialized countries, with a military force capable of defending not only the homeland, but the sea lanes, islands and other regions essential to Japan but not part of Japan. And one could add to this regaining a sense of pride that Japan lost in World War II.
Those opposed to the revision do not want to assume the burdens that go with this. They do not want to rebuild a Japan that resembles the past. There is the practical issue of risk. But there is also the moral issue that what Japan has become is more virtuous than what Japan was. They want to retain that virtue, which will be lost if Japan develops an offensive capability.
There are of course some ultra-nationalists who dream of resurrecting “the way of the warrior.” They are not critical players in this. The key difference, in a country that cherishes consensus, is between those who still remember World War II with horror and those who feel that it is essential to put World War II behind them.
It is interesting to observe Japan’s two dilemmas. One is the moral and historical one. The other is the hard strategic fact that no nation wants to depend on another for its fundamental strategic interest. The United States’ interests are changeable, but the import of industrial minerals is indispensable. When we look at this from a geopolitical and strategic perspective, Japan must change Article 9 to allow it freedom of action in the event the U.S. shifts its strategy.
In my model, the moral argument is significant, but can’t override the strategic. If China strangles Japan, the moral argument becomes moot. Paradoxically, to have the moral debate it is a precondition that Japan have the ability to defend itself. Japan has already redefined Article 9 to defend the homeland. It will at some point soon redefine it to permit defending the homeland’s overwhelming interests.
When it does this, and when Japan begins building naval and air forces in earnest, China will face a major power in the region. This is precisely what China wants to prevent and, again paradoxically, is creating.