In recent weeks, the Diet has been debating whether to support legislation that will allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense. Prime Minister Abe has proposed an interpretation of the nation’s constitution that will allow Japan to have a carefully circumscribed version of this right that all nations have under the United Nations Charter. Nonetheless, the issue remains controversial for those who see it as a departure from Japan’s 70-year-long pacifist tradition. Some fear that it will involve Japan in distant American wars, but the rules are carefully written to prohibit such adventures while allowing Japan to work more closely with the United States on direct threats to the security of Japan.
In terms of national security, Japan lives in a dangerous region. Most striking is the unpredictable dictatorship of North Korea, which is poor but has invested its meager economic resources in nuclear and missile technology. A longer-term concern is the rise of China, a nation of 1.3 billion, which claims the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. To the north, Russia still claims territory that was Japanese before 1945. In addition, Japan depends on imports over sea-lanes in contested areas like the South China Sea. Moreover, unlike Europe after 1945, East Asia never experienced the full reconciliation among rivals or the establishment of strong regional institutions.
Faced with this situation, Japanese leaders have four major security choices. They could change the constitution and fully rearm as a nuclear nation, but this would be costly and dangerous. They could seek neutrality and rely upon the United Nations Charter, but this would not provide adequate security. They could form an alliance with China, but this would lead to too much Chinese influence over Japan. Or, they could maintain the alliance with the distant superpower of the United States. This is, by far, the safest and most cost-effective of the options. The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty has been a central feature of stability in East Asia for over half a century, and when the Obama administration announced its so-called “pivot to Asia” (more appropriately a “rebalancing” toward Asia) in 2011, it reconfirmed the importance of the region and the centrality of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
The task for American and Japanese leaders is not containment, but to shape the environment in which China makes its choices so that it has incentives to act responsibly. This involves maintaining a strong defense capability and requires better coordination for collective self-defense. Japan must do more to prepare for low-level provocations and make clear the responsibilities for responding to acts in the middle between low-level provocations and high-end conflict. Japanese leaders should also do more to resolve historical tensions that inhibit more effective defense cooperation with South Korea to prepare for a crisis in North Korea. This is not the abandonment of pacifism, just prudent precaution.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and author of “The Future of Power.”