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Japan Also Rises

Prepared by: Michael Moran
April 13, 2006

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"Lies, damned lies, and statistics." Mark Twain's famous quip is both true and indicative of how dangerous it is to rely on simple statistics when gauging complex topics. To wit: Japan's pacifist constitution includes a strict prohibition on the creation of a regular army, as well as spending more than 1 percent of GDP on the military. Yet 1 percent of Japan's GDP is enough to rank it fourth in world military spending, with only the United States, China, and France ahead on the list.

Japan's wary neighbors never put much faith in the 1 percent limitation. This week, reforms of the Japanese military's command structure take effect to enable joint operations (Yomiuri Shimbum) between air, land and sea forces. The impetus for the change was the botched 1995 effort to coordinate naval and ground rescue efforts after the Kobe earthquake. But this will, no doubt, be dismissed by some outsiders for whom Japan's military will always be synonymous with the abuses of the 1930s and 1940s. The complexities of the debate over Japan's military capabilities are outlined in this Background Q&A by Lee Hudson Teslik.

But does any of this constitute evidence of a remilitarizing Japan? The Japanese note their Self Defense Force (SDF) currently has a mere 240,000 personnel. Even acknowledging their highly capable navy, Japan's forces are small compared with the 2.25 million under arms in China, the one million-plus-strong North Korean military, or even the 660,000 South Koreans in uniform.

Japan's neighbors see the numbers in a different light, and understand that an economic superpower can quickly choose to diversify into military efforts. This year, China, South Korea, and the Philippines have all traded barbs with Japan over historical issues (CSMonitor) related to Japan's brutal conduct during World War II. Anger about glossed-over atrocities in Japanese primary school text books sparked anti-Japanese rioting last year in China, and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's decision to visit the controversial Yasukuni war shrine for a fifth year running (Bloomberg) led China to reaffirm a boycott on bilateral high-level contacts.

In fact, the rivalry between Japan and China, profiled here by the BBC, increasingly drives tension between the two countries, and a competition for scarce regional offshore oil resources plays its part (WashPost). Yet, with Sino-Japanese ties at their worst since the 1970s, the friction over history and oil platforms are merely symptoms of deeper frictions, as Masaru Tamamoto of the The Japan Institute of International Affairs explains in a recent article. "Some liken current Sino-Japanese relations to the Anglo-German rivalry prior to World War I," writes Kent Calder, an East Asia expert, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

Comparisons to one of history's most infamous arms races notwithstanding, others in the region appear more sanguine. The South Asia Analysis Group, an India-based think tank, sees a more assertive policy, citing Japan's decision to send warships and military support staff to aid U.S.-led forces in Iraq. The paper says Japan seems to be engaged in tentative "steps towards more assertive approaches in enhancing its military profile." But it also notes that this is a long way from the South East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere of the Japanese Empire. The Australian Journal of International Affairs is even less alarmist, noting Japanese "policy-makers have continued to hedge around commitments to the US through careful constitutional framing of [SDF] missions and capabilities, allowing it opt-out clauses in future conflicts."

For now, though, Beijing's foreign ministry spokesman says China is intent on isolating Japan (Xinhua) until their neighbor shows "sincerity and wisdom" in handling their mutual history. And, for good measure, China is outspending Japan on defense.

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