Jewish World Review Nov. 3, 2004 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Daniel Sneider

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Japan quietly assuming its global military place | Slowly and quietly, Japan is shedding its post-war image as a military free-rider, content to rely on the United States for its defense. Japanese are not only talking seriously about national security - they are acting.

Japan's image as a bastion of pacifism has long been out of sync with reality. While Japan confined its military to defense of its homeland, it built a powerful armed force. Its navy is considered by many to be second only to that of the United States in its strength and skill. And its air force is among the world's best.

In the decade since the end of the Cold War, Japan has broken through many post-war taboos about the use of its armed forces. It dispatched them for peacekeeping operations with the United Nations. In the last two years, Japan sent ships to aid the war in Afghanistan and troops to carry out humanitarian missions in Iraq.

Now even more revolutionary changes are on the way. In October a private advisory group to the prime minister issued a report laying the ground work for a new national security strategy. It envisions Japanese forces that could deploy globally in support of peacekeeping operations, to counter terrorist threats, even to carry out pre-emptive strikes against an enemy preparing missile attacks on Japan.

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This may be disquieting for some people who harbor worries about a remilitarized Japan. But there are no grounds for such alarm. These changes are the product of a positive and open debate going on within Japan, as it is here, to rethink defense strategy to meet new threats.

The advisory commission report, which has received little attention outside of Japan, argues forcefully that the risk of a full-scale invasion of Japan is gone. Japanese armored units that used to train to face a possible Soviet amphibious invasion should be sharply reduced. The navy needs to move away from a force focused on hunting Russian submarines.

Instead of deterring a nuclear attack by the Russians or Chinese, Japan now faces the problem of a few nuclear weapons, mounted on ballistic missiles, in the hands of North Korea.

While preparing for the traditional potential threats from other nations, Japan also must deal with new problems of non-state actors, of terrorists and of ethnic and religious conflicts.

The commission urges major reforms of Japan's military, including creating a Japanese version of special forces for overseas missions. The need for improving intelligence gathering and streamlining decision-making on security issues is also high on the agenda.

The report supports the joint development with the United States of missile defense systems to strengthen deterrence against a nuclear attack by North Korea. But it also raises the possibility that Japan may need offensive capabilities - like long-range strike aircraft and precision bombs - to strike at enemy missile bases "as a last resort."

There is one constant however in Japanese defense strategy - the strategic alliance between Japan and the United States. "Since the end of the Cold War, Japan could have pursued a more independent course, by stepping away from the U.S.-Japan alliance," observes Dartmouth political scientist and Japan security expert Jennifer Lind. "This report is yet another sign that Japan is firmly committed to the alliance."

Certainly Japan has been one of the closest allies of the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. But it would be wrong to understand this as a blanket endorsement of the Bush administration's policies. The security commission concludes its recommendations with a clear message.

"Military might alone simply does not offer a fundamental solution to the complex ethnic conflicts, religious confrontations and socioeconomic inequalities. Soft power diplomacy - such as economic cooperation - should be used more actively to overcome the limits of hard power. Political leaders should take the initiative in bringing hard and soft power together to make it work. Civilian leaders must exercise bold leadership even at the risk of possible failure."

When Japanese policy-makers speak with this kind of clarity, it is not only welcome, but worth listening to.

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Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2004, San Jose Mercury News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.