On Manila’s support for the “rearming” of Japan

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario made news last week for expressing support for the “rearming” of Japan, saying Manila is “looking for balancing factors in the region,” and that Tokyo “could be a significant balancing factor,” presumably against an increasingly-assertive China.

It seems to me that the subliminal message of the way the international press has reported the Secretary’s comments is that, because of China’s intransigence, Japan’s standing among Asian countries is changing. Here are my two cents:

First of all, I don’t think this indicates a change in Japan’s standing among Asian countries. Unlike South Korea and China, which still hold deep grudges against Tokyo for its war crimes, Southeast Asian countries have never been distrustful of Japan in the first place, despite the fact that Tokyo has never really fully apologized for its wartime atrocities. Even in the midst of Chinese and Korean protests over the revisionism of the Japanese Ministry of Education, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, and former (and returning) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s insistence that there’s no evidence proving that the Japanese Imperial Army was engaged in sexual slavery during World War II, Southeast Asian countries have remained, at the very least, silent.

This is partly because massive Japanese investments and official development aid have arguably been the single, most decisive factor in ushering in a period of Southeast Asian economic development during the post-war period, which scholars dub as the flying geese model of development. Moreover, it was in an address to the Philippine Congress in Manila that former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda enunciated the so-called Fukuda Doctrine, which asserted that Japan would shun any military role and instead pursue economic cooperation with Asian countries regardless of their ideological inclinations. These had not only been reassuring for Southeast Asian countries; they also built robust Japanese soft power in the region, so much so that by the early 1980s, many Southeast Asian countries were already looking to Japan as a benign regional leader worth emulating. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammad’s Look East Policy comes to mind, for instance.

In other words, far from being an indication of changing Asian attitudes towards Japan, Secretary del Rosario’s comments merely reflected a reality that many Western observers often overlook, which is that there’s actually a dichotomy of Asian attitude towards Tokyo: Southeast Asia loves Japan, while Northeast Asia distrusts it.

I suspect the reason behind this dichotomy is the fact that Southeast Asia has a longer history of colonialism than Northeast Asia. This differences in history has resulted in differences in dispositions of these Asian states’ respective national pysches.

A very weak China had to cave in to Western domination in the early part of the previous century, but it was Japan’s brutal occupation from the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War through World War II that truly humiliated the Middle Kingdom. China had generally regarded Japan as some sort of a cultural vassal nation, and subjugation by an erstwhile vassal nation can be a huge blow to the psyche of a nation that regards itself as a civilization-state. As for  Korea, another proud nation, it had never been colonized prior its annexation by Japan in 1910. In sharp contrast, Southeast Asian nations, with the exception of Thailand, had been colonies of various foreign powers for centuries prior to Japan’s invasion in the 1940s. Since Southeast Asians had been used to colonial subjugation, Japan’s occupation of their countries might not have been as big a blow to their respective national psyches as it was to those of Korea and China; hence their willingness to forget past Japanese atrocities even sans appropriate apology from Tokyo.

Secondly, I don’t think the “rearming” of Japan would be an effective balancing factor in the region, and by “effective” I mean stabilizing. I might be oversimplifying Secretary del Rosario’s comments, but it seems to me that he’s arguing that Japan should have capable armed forces that can check China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

But the Secretary should know that Japan had in fact already rearmed a long time ago, when General Douglas MacArthur, in order to fill the vacuum left by American forces that were sent from Japan to the Korean War, allowed Tokyo to form the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Indeed, the JSDF has a maritime force that can annihilate the Chinese navy and even give the American Seventh Fleet a run for its money. So, when we talk of a “rearming” of Japan, we’re not talking about Japan having its own armed forces, for it already has a formidable one. What a “rearming” of Japan means is Tokyo discarding its war-renouncing Article 9 of its Constitution and allowing it to participate in military activities that are offensive in nature. A “rearming” of Japan means changing its armed forces’ name from Self-Defense Forces (自衛隊) to National Defense Military (国防軍), which, by the way, is exactly what incoming Prime Minister Abe wants to do.

Now, would discarding Japan’s pacifist disposition be an “effective” balancing factor? If Tokyo participates in active military alliances with countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, would China turn less assertive in the South China Sea? Well, the argument invokes the classic realist balance-of-power calculus, which basically means that high fences make good neighbors. But– looking at the context of the East China Sea– we can see that Japan already has a very high fence, so why is China still not a good neighbor?

The problem with this realist perspective is that it assumes that states act rationally, and this assumption forms the basis of stability through balance-of-power theory. Well, if this were true, Japan would not have provoked the United States, which had a manufacturing capacity almost ten times greater than Tokyo’s, in 1941. But at that time, the myopic militarists, who were anything but rational, were steering Japan. In Beijing’s case, we know that the jingoistic hawks, buoyed by strong nationalist sentiments among the Chinese masses, are determined to steer China’s direction. And like the Japanese militarist of the 1930s, they are anything but rational– if they were, they wouldn’t have squandered China’s carefully-cultivated soft power by coming up with those maps and passports in the first place.

If anything, a re-militarized Japan would only fuel extreme nationalist sentiments in China, which would further embolden the Chinese hawks. The ruling Communist Party, seeing a need to pander to these jingoistic sentiments in order to preserve its legitimacy, would then be forced to act more aggressively to protect China’s perceived core national interests. It would only make China less rational. Far from being an effective balancing factor, therefore, the “rearming” of Japan would only further destabilize the already volatile regional situation.


11 thoughts on “On Manila’s support for the “rearming” of Japan”

  1. Classic security dilemma. A country, in a bid to feel safe boosts its armed forces only to have a neighbor assume of that country’s malicious intent. Thus the neighbor increases security spending resulting to a feeling of insecurity in the former and thus more security spending and so on.

    I’m curious, how would you make China a good neighbor?

  2. Interesting discussion. China and Japan are like a pair of fighting chickens at the head-bopping stage before the attack. China could make everything moot by figuring out how to deal with neighbors in a way that respects their self-interest, whilst pursuing her own. I think the decision is rather in China’s hands, and Japan would be foolish not to stiffen up with a chicken threatening to peck at her eyeballs. When China wants peace in Asia, we will have peace in Asia.

    1. The Japanese chicken has long stiffened up, and can kill that other chicken any time, but that Chinese chicken, perhaps deluded by odes to its new-found strength (sung by people like that British wacko Jacques) doesn’t seem to realize this.

      The Filipino chicken, which I heard is getting economically well-off, should better stiffen up as well, instead of relying on other chickens to defend itself.

  3. If rearming Japan indeed did mean not only modifying Article 9, but removing all of the restrictions on offensive “war potential” such as ballistic and cruise missiles, a/c carriers and the like, I agreed and do think that would indeed be destabilizing – and to be sure no one is particularly interested in that in Japan anyway. It may be that FAS del Rosario and other security establishment Filipinos would desire Japan being free to engage in collective self-defense, which need not be connected to the ban on war potential, particularly if it is limited to BMD which Japanese support. This could mean Japan could even engage in limited alliances in the region. This would annoy the Chinese, but they already think the worst of Japan so I am not convinced that it will make that much of a difference to their calculus!

    Perhaps also exporting more naval equipment to help with the Philippines “minimum defense” build-up is on del Rosario’s mind, especially with the arms restrictions being loosened. He may be also thinking of Japan going beyond the one per cent cap and bulking up its MSDF. While the MSDF would be more than a match for the PLA(N) in a limited naval engagement in East and South China Seas, be assured that it is still dramatically underfunded and stretched and could do with a boost in funding even for its explicitly defensive platforms and operations. It is perhaps enough for the most narrow conceptualization of Japan’s defense, but since Japan has increasing regional and even global maritime responsibilities then it still underequipped. Anyway, I guess my point is that “rearming” could mean many things in Japan’s case. [recheck the character for NDM – should be 国防軍 with the extra う]

    1. Indeed, the Secretary should have clarified what he meant by a “rearming” of Japan. But at any rate, hasn’t Japan already loosened its arms restrictions and engaged in limited military alliances in the region?

      1. Yes, but not so far taken to their “logical” conclusions, so to speak. It has loosened its arms restrictions but until it provides submarines or a surface vessel to Vietnam or the Philippines navies (not CG), or makes some kind of commitment (regular bilateral military exercises at the very least) then it is only partially engaged….”consultations” with senior military figures (such as has taken place in Vietnam and PH) is a big step with Japan who never went beyond the US alliance until Abe 1.0, but it is not exactly “balancing” against China. Personally I believe the incremental approach isn’t all bad – essentially a pragmatic message to China: “we are willing to go further with these relationships – it is up to you if we do or not”

  4. Taking your argument to its logical conclusion, that means China will go to war regardless of what their neighbors would do. In that case, much better to have not just a high fence, but also the means to take the war to the Chinese mainland. And this is not just for Japan, but also all countries currently involved in territorial disputes with China.

    Maybe China will back down, maybe not. But any country that is remiss in its preparation for war would be guilty of dereliction of its duty to protect its citizens.

  5. Seems like China wants to impose a neo-Monroe Doctrine in the area except that unlike the US it is not strong enough to do it. Japan, US, and South Korea, plus alliances among China’s would-be vassals means China has a lot of work to do before it can become the dominant power in the region. And then there’s India to worry about as well. DFA’s del Rosario is trash-talking China out of its comfort zone. China knows that its chances of dominating the region is about as good as the chances of the Philippines gaining full control over disputed waters and it hates being reminded of it. So good one from del Rosario,

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