TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to extend the Diet’s current session for 95 days, until September 27 – making for the longest continuous session in the Japanese parliament’s postwar history. The reason is clear: Abe is determined to pass a set of national security bills allowing a reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution that enables the country to play a greater role not only in enhancing its own security, but also in advancing world peace.
Abe’s actions in the Diet come on the heels of his performance at the recent G-7 summit in Germany, where he broke with Japanese tradition. For the previous 39 years, Japanese representatives to the G-7 had focused on the economic discussions at such meetings, content to remain largely silent as the industrialized world’s other leaders surveyed the planet’s political hot spots and recommended action or, more often, inaction.
But the summit showed that Japan no longer intends to stand on the diplomatic sidelines. On the two foreign-policy issues that dominated the agenda, Abe was a forceful participant, advocating a muscular response to Russia’s encroachment on Ukraine’s sovereignty – indeed, Abe visited Kyiv before the summit – and supporting efforts to roll back the Islamic State.
Abe’s interventions at the G-7, and his determination to create a legal framework for a more proactive security strategy, are proof that Japan, at long last, is constructing a foreign policy – a Weltpolitik – that reflects not only the global weight of its economy, but also the impact of faraway events on its national security.
This foreign-policy assertiveness is as revolutionary for Japan’s diplomacy as “Abenomics” has been for its economic policy. It marks a stark contrast with the seven decades following Japan’s defeat in 1945 in the Pacific War, when successive governments mostly outsourced foreign policy to the United States.
Until the 1980s, this made sense. By concentrating on reconstructing the country after the devastation of war, our leaders brought about an economic miracle. Japan became the world’s second-ranking industrial power, and almost all Japanese enjoyed lifestyles and levels of social security that their parents could never have imagined.
Of course, there were jolts along the way. In fact, the two greatest were administered by the US. First came Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to meet Mao Zedong to prepare President Richard Nixon’s visit to China; then came the so-called Nixon Shock – the decision just a short time later to end the US dollar’s direct convertibility to gold (a pillar of the post-war international monetary system created at Bretton Woods in 1944). The opening to China and the Nixon Shock confirmed the position of those in Japan who knew that the country could not remain on permanent sabbatical from its foreign-policy role and responsibilities.
Because successive Japanese governments badly underestimated its consequences, the rise of China has been the third and final shock to Japan’s policy of neo-isolationism. Over much of the past three decades, Japanese firms and official agencies have happily invested hundreds of billions of dollars in China, hoping to bind the two economies together in a way that would end the lingering bitterness from World War II.
Instead, as the friction of recent years has amply attested, China continues to nurture the bitterness of its people, and those of other Asian countries, toward Japan. Its hope is to rule out any Japanese role in resolving regional security issues, and to diminish the potency of the US-Japan alliance.
But it is not only China that has reawakened Japan’s foreign-policy ambitions. Russia was a concern for Japan even before President Vladimir Putin unleashed his armed forces on Ukraine. The Kremlin has maintained Russia’s illegal occupation of Japanese islands – our “Northern Territories” – seized by Stalin after Japan’s surrender in the Pacific War.
In the decades since, both the Soviet government and the Russian government of President Boris Yeltsin periodically engaged in diplomatic efforts to end their country’s estrangement from Japan. But under Putin, Russia no longer makes even a pretense of talking. Indeed, for the first time since the islands’ seizure, Russian leaders have actually visited them, reinforcing Russia’s spurious sovereignty claim.
Given Chinese and Russian actions, it should surprise no one that Japan has fundamentally rethought its diplomatic posture. And now the world is witnessing the results, not only in Abe’s reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution to allow for greater military support of the country’s allies, but also in the reinvigorated mutual-defense pact that Abe and President Barack Obama signed in Washington, DC, in late April.
At the same time, Japan is moving out of America’s diplomatic shadow. A strategic partnership with India has been gaining strength since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office last year, and Abe has been deepening Japan’s strategic ties around Southeast Asia, particularly with countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, which are confronting China’s hegemonic ambitions in the South China Sea.
Japan’s engagement with the world’s most vexing problems goes beyond Asia. The country was the first of the world’s leading economies to provide financial assistance to Ukraine after Putin’s placeman, President Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted last year. And it is beefing up its relations with emerging giants like Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, and Turkey.
These initiatives reflect Japan’s recognition that the global framework that has kept the peace, and created opportunities for prosperity, for ever more countries – including China – is under threat. Japan and likeminded countries must actively defend it. The positions that Abe staked out in Germany represent an important step in that direction.
Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former defense minister and national security adviser, was Chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council and currently is a member of the National Diet.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.