What’s Abe up to?

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What’s Abe up to?


Yuji Hosaka
The author is a politics professor at Sejong University, South Korea.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry condemned Japan for a low-altitude patrol plane buzzing a South Korean warship. Japan denies any intentional provocation behind the close flight. In protest, Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya claimed Tokyo will no longer hold discussions with Seoul, while adding that bilateral military cooperation with the traditional ally nevertheless will stay intact. Tokyo, however, decided not to send a Self-Defense warship to the Busan Port for an annual tripartite military exercise in the spring with the United States and South Korea. The decision was disguised as a diplomatic move to avoid another spat over a Japanese warship bearing the Rising Sun flag when entering the Busan port, the same reason Japan missed out on an international naval event last October.

It is hard for a non-military person to understand the danger of a plane buzzing a ship. But military experts agree that it is a typical spying activity for a jet to fly close to a warship and also unacceptable to send a patrol plane so close to the waters of an ally.

Toshio Tamogami, the former Chief of Staff of Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force and an outspoken conservative, tweeted that Japan was overreacting about a South Korean Navy destroyer locking its radar on a Japanese patrol aircraft while searching for a North Korean fishing boat in distress in the eastern waters off the islets of Dokdo. He also claimed that the Korean warship had not aimed at the Japanese jet after studying footage released by Japan.

The incident can be compared to the Ganwha Island incident, an armed skirmish between the Joseon Dynasty of Korea and Japan in the vicinity of Gangwha Island in September 1875. After the Meiji Restoration ended feudalistic rule, Japan waged diplomatic warfare to open up Joseon. It dispatched two warships south of Gangwha. The ships invaded the waters of Joseon. The sailors pretended they were pleading for water by nearing the shores to draw fire from the island first.

The shore batteries fell for the trap and fired at the incoming boats. The Japanese battleships responded fast and went into a full-fledged attack, claiming the islanders attacked a friendly ship seeking peaceful relief. Upon landing on Yongjeong Island, Japanese soldiers killed 40 Koreans with their rifles and set houses on fire before returning to Nagasaki. Japan waged an international campaign against the so-called rogue act by Koreans and forced the royal court to sign the Treaty of Gangwha to make the Hermit Kingdom open up to Japanese and foreign trade.

Tokyo could be aiming to provoke “strong actions” from Seoul through the low-altitude flight for its political and diplomatic gain.

The incident comes amid waning popularity of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ambitious agenda to rewrite the pacifist postwar constitution. An easing of provocations from North Korea has put into doubt his rationale for the upgrade of the Japanese Self-Defense force to a full-fledged army. The amendment now has support from less than half the Japanese population. The revision had support until late 2017, when North Korea posed a threat and was shooting rockets over Japan on a regular basis.

Reconciliation between the two Koreas could work unfavorably for Japan’s constitutional rewriting. Abe’s administration needs a fresh impetus to its pitch for a stronger military. It needs a radical push to achieve the amendment before Abe’s term ends in September 2021. The motion to revise the constitution requires more than two-thirds approval from legislators and more than 50 percent of a vote in favor in a public referendum. There are other procedures before a new Constitution can be proclaimed. Abe has no other momentum to accelerate constitutional reform. A military spat with South Korea could be a windfall for the Abe administration.

Tokyo not only wages a diplomatic standoff with Seoul but also with Moscow. Abe has endeavored hard to solve the territorial row with Russia over islets known as the Kuriles in Russia and Northern Territories in Japan. He has drawn agreement from Moscow to return two of four islands seized by the Soviets at the end of World War II, but Russian President Vladimir Putin backtracked from the idea due to widespread Russian opposition. Tokyo also is up against trade barriers from Washington. It also has been neglected in denuclearization negotiations with North Korea. Abe appears to have lost his sway over U.S. President Donald Trump.

The developments on the diplomatic front have all been unfavorable for Tokyo. The Abe administration may be seeking a breakthrough to muster public support for its constitutional agenda by hyping military tensions with South Korea. It may be making a nationalistic plea to justify the constitutional reform.

The imperialist army of Japan typically waged a military strategy of going to war by claiming the opponent had attacked first. It launched wars in Manchuria and China through that strategy. The latest low-flight offensive strangely reminds me of its past tactic. I just hope I am wrong.

Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily staff

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 25, Page 29
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