Japan's Renewed Global Role In Peace And Prosperity

Stimson Spotlight

Japan's Renewed Global Role In Peace And Prosperity

On July 1, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a significant policy change to Japan’s post-World War II constitutional constraints. These constraints have historically prevented the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) from playing a greater role in international security.  Article 9 of Japan’s so-called “peace constitution,”  which prohibits the country from  using military force  as a means of resolving international conflicts, has served as the foundation of Japan’s postwar foreign and defense policy.  As controversial as it may be, Abe’s Cabinet decision is both timely and appropriate, as the change is consistent with his own national strategy of “proactive contribution to peace.” 

By virtually every metric since 1945, the Japanese postwar reconstruction has been remarkable. A broken country following the war—its economy and internal infrastructure were in tatters and the entire country was forced to rebuild in the wake of two atomic bombs exploding over major population centers— the Japan of today bears no resemblance to its post-war self. Japan is the world’s third largest economy. It is a global leader in terms of the manufacture of high-tech and precision goods. It is often ranked among the world's most innovative countries, leading several measures of global patent filings.  And, despite two-decades of economic stagnation, Japan remains the second largest aid contributor in the world—not only in East and Southeast Asia where the preponderance of assistance is targeted, but also in large parts of Africa.

Certainly, this success came with the help of international partners—most notably the United States—but it was also the result of shrewd economic decision making that transformed Japan into a high-tech innovation and export hub for the world. As important, but less well quantified, has been the role of Japan’s constitutionally defined practice of military non-interference abroad. In an era where global trading patterns were well-established, supply chains were short, the pace of global commerce was leisurely, and competition with both legitimate and less-than-legitimate actors in the economic commodities market was comparatively slow and predictable, Japan’s approach to offensive military action was in its national interest. Even as Article 9 kept Japan out of combat operations following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, for instance, it did not prevent Tokyo from contributing to non-combat operations during the first Gulf War. Nor has it prevented important contributions to peacekeeping operations in South Sudan, Cambodia, Mozambique, Timor-Leste, Haiti and the Golan Heights.

Why then it is important for Japan to revise its earlier interpretation of its peace constitution today? For better or worse, globalization has rewritten the rules of engagement for countries, companies and all other potential economic actors on the world stage. As a result of our growing interconnectedness, security and development issues are increasingly enmeshed. Insecurity on one side of the planet can have deep implications for economic health and welfare on the opposite side of the globe—and vice versa. Major disruptions to the oil and gas industry are perhaps the most obvious example, but even more modest security and development challenges can have profound impacts. Prolonged economic deprivation in one country radiates poor health, transnational criminal activity, or even terrorist activity abroad. Likewise, perversion of one segment of the supply chain by organized crime—for instance, the trafficking of small arms and light weapons into and out of East Africa—leads not only to immediate human insecurity, but can significantly inhibit prospects for economic growth and development.

Take Southeast Asia as an example. Peace and prosperity in the region have long been priorities for Tokyo, which recognizes Southeast Asia as essential to their own growth and stability. ASEAN economies have also managed better than most other regions to rebound from the global economic crisis, returning already to pre-crisis medium-term growth prospects, even while much of the rest of the world remains mired in near economic stagnation. Yet despite this remarkable progress, existing and emerging obstacles threaten the region’s continued advancement. Most notable among these are growing maritime security challenges that include not only territorial disputes in South China Sea but also piracy, and the illicit trafficking in humans, drugs, and small arms. This at once facilitates and is facilitated by transnational organized criminal groups operating in the region that are involved in a range of illicit trafficking activities not limited by product type. These activities rely on complex, interconnected networks that leverage each other to update equipment and on corrupt government personnel and officials, including police and border security.

These perils not only affect the most vulnerable communities and peoples of the region, but together they can overwhelm legitimate state structures and disrupt the licit flow of goods upon which the region and the world have come to depend. In short, underdevelopment and soft-security challenges threaten to undermine many of the astonishing strides that Southeast Asian countries have made in the last two decades—and by extension, all other countries whose economies are inextricably intertwined as a result of globalization. These trends clearly demonstrate the need for additional work in order to promote increased societal security that safeguards and promotes development across the region.

Although efforts by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and other non-military assistance provided to the region is essential for combatting a rising tide of criminality and terror across the region, the collision course of hard security issues with economic stability and prosperity means that ultimately, the use of internationally coordinated military force may be necessary. The SDF can and should be an active participant in such operations.  Even short of direct military intervention, JSDF’s engagement with Southeast Asian militaries to help them build capacities to respond to various emergencies can be instrumental in creating regional capacities to address these translational security concerns.       

So far, much of the attention surrounding Prime Minister Abe’s decision has revolved around its potential impact on Japan’s defense policy and its alliance relationship with the United States. Yet, in today’s globalized and inter-connected world, the nature of security threats has changed in such a way that the threats that exist beyond Japan’s borders can threaten the safety and economic prosperity of the Japanese people.  As global security and economic prosperity increasingly intersect, there can be little doubt that Japan cannot stand idly by as the world grapples to leverage the full spectrum of national power to stabilize the international security environment and facilitate global commerce and economic development.  Although Mr. Abe’s decision was certainly controversial, it is good news not only in the narrow context of the US-Japan alliance, but also for global security and economic prosperity.

Photo credit: President of the European Council via flickr