Korea knows Japan’s intentionsPrime Minister Shinzo Abe and his right-wing government in Tokyo are accelerating steps to lift the self-imposed Japanese ban on the right to collective self-defense. They want to reinterpret their post-war pacifist constitution to build a full-fledged military.
It turned to its biggest security ally for the support of its new military vision. In a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera last week said Japan will need the ability to attack an enemy base in response to North Korea’s military belligerence and to help protect American forces.
The United Nations Charter mandates member states to exercise collective self-defense - the use of force to defend an ally under armed attack. But under the post-war constitution, Japan has renounced that right and restricted its military posture to one of defense only. What Onodera implied is the possibility that Japan wanted to operate on the Korean Peninsula and strike at North Korea even if its territory were not under direct attack. U.S. Senator John McCain, during a recent visit to Tokyo, expressed support for Abe’s campaign to exercise collective self-defense, a move that could bolster U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Washington has a practical reason to back a stronger Japanese military. President Barack Obama announced a “Pivot to Asia,” a strategic rebalance in the Asia-Pacific to contain the growing power and influence of China. And, at the same time, he is faced with defense budget cuts and therefore needs a more active role from Japan in the security alliance. Japan also needs U.S. backing to strengthen its bargaining power amid escalating tensions over the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Islands in the East China Sea.
So in March, Japan announced that it would join the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership as a part of strategy to reinforce its alliance with Washington. A free trade accord that would lower tariffs in 16 countries, it is part of Obama’s ambitious agenda, an effort that he hopes to bring to pass within the year. The trade bloc could better challenge China, the world’s second-largest economy. With Japan participating, it would be the world’s largest economic bloc, accounting for 38 percent of the world economy and 28 percent of global trade.
The agreement includes rules on unfair practices by state companies, government procurement, intellectual property rights and labor and environmental protection - all of which a state-controlled country like China cannot accept.
Two months after Tokyo announced its interest in the TPP, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke indicated that the U.S. central bank was ready to phase out its monetary easing program. Emerging markets in Asia shook with fears of investor flight and a liquidity crisis. Abe toured the smaller economies of Asia, pledging aid and protection against external shocks. Asian nations - anxious about growing Chinese influence and overreliance on the Chinese economy - gave in easily to Tokyo’s overture. It all had been a delicately synchronized campaign by Washington and Tokyo to contain China.
The U.S.- and Japan-led TPP, a common economic front that will exclude China, has drawn opposition and criticism around the world. The Economist magazine said Americans were forcing their standards on other nations. The Financial Times also wrote that it would not be easy to build an “anyone but China” club, calling the TPP a cowardly and unfair trade pact. It asked why the trade bloc would include Vietnam but not China, although they are similar, state-controlled economies, with questionable regulations and weak intellectual property rights protections.
The economic partnership is all part of Japan’s bigger plan to beef up its military capabilities and revive its status with U.S. endorsement. One Japanese diplomat in Seoul said it would be selfish for Japan not to respond if its ally’s forces were under attack. Tokyo is painstakingly putting together causes and conditions to lift its decades-old restrictions on the use of military force. Japan is in conflict with China in the economy, politics and security. The three-way relationship among South Korea, Japan and China has become too complicated to be explained even by calling it an “Asian paradox,” in which the nations cooperate economically despite political and security tensions.
But we have to ask Washington: Has it forgotten history - the surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy against the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor? As an independence activist, Syngman Rhee had warned that imperial Japan could start a war with the United States. The American novelist Pearl Buck described Rhee’s book “Japan Inside Out” as frightening; it had warned of Japan’s expansionist foreign and security policies five months before the Pearl Harbor attack.
The warning fell on deaf ears. Rhee, who later became South Korea’s first president, pointed out that a 1905 secret pact between U.S. Secretary of War William Taft and Japanese Prime Minister Katsura Taro - in which the two nations agreed to recognize Japan’s sphere of influence in Korea in exchange for U.S. freedom in the Philippines - replaced the 1882 U.S. security treaty with Korea. Rhee claimed that the U.S. tolerance of Japan’s aggression into Korea was the tipping point in starting World War II.
The U.S. must pay attention to the concerns and complaints from Korea and China about Japan’s campaign to overturn pacifist posture and revive its military. President Obama must not repeat the mistake Franklin Roosevelt made 72 years ago.
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
BY Lee Ha-kyung