The Japanese Diet has taken a much-publicized step to allow Japan to play a meaningful security role in the 21st century. Over the opposition of pacifist legislators, the Diet recently passed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's anti-terrorism bill, which allows Japan's Self Defense Forces to support the U.S.-led war against Osama bin Laden. Three Japanese naval vessels are now on their way to take up positions in the Indian Ocean.
That step contrasts with Tokyo's policy during the Persian Gulf War. During that crisis, Japan confined its role to "checkbook diplomacy" -- paying some $13 billion of the war's cost but otherwise declining to assist the international coalition that forced Saddam Hussein's troops out of Kuwait.
One should not overstate the importance of the anti-terrorism legislation, however. It is still a relatively timid venture into the realm of the world's security affairs. Japan must do far more if it hopes to be taken seriously as a political and military player.
The most disappointing aspect of the anti-terrorism measure is that it confines Japan's role to non-combat, logistical support. That restriction reflects the same unfortunate timidity contained in the 1997 changes to the defense guidelines for the U.S.-Japanese alliance. Those guidelines were an improvement on their predecessor. For the first time, Japan agreed to have the Special Defense Forces (SDF) play a role in repelling a security threat in East Asia, even if Japan were not under attack. But as in the case of the later anti-terrorism bill, the SDF was only supposed to provide logistical support for U.S. combat operations.
That limitation needs to end. Article 9, the "pacifist clause" in Japan's constitution, has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had when it was adopted at the insistence of the United States after World War II. Japan is the only major power that refuses to play a security role commensurate with its political and economic status. Even Germany, the other principal defeated power in World War II, has recently sent peacekeeping troops to the Balkans and has now agreed to send 3,000 combat personnel to participate in the war against bin Laden. Tokyo cannot forever confine its security role to one of cheerleading, financial subsidies and logistical support.
The standard argument against Japan playing a more active military role is that it would upset its neighbors in East Asia. The nations of that region, it is said, still remember the outrages committed by imperial Japan during the 1920s and 1930s and would react badly to any manifestations of "Japanese militarism."
But that argument oversimplifies reality. True, a few countries (most notably South Korea) are still paranoid about Japan. China also opposes any military role for Japan. Indeed, if Beijing had its way, the Japanese SDF would not even exist. But China's strident objections are self-serving; PRC officials realize that an active, assertive Japan would be a major obstacle to Beijing's own ambitions to become the dominant power in the region.
Other East Asian countries are beginning to mute their objections to Japan playing a more active security role. Successive Australian governments have said that the time has come to bury the fears about renewed Japanese militarism. Singapore earlier this year offered Tokyo the use of its naval facilities -- a strong signal that it accepts the reality that Japan no longer poses a threat. Similar accommodating statements have been emanating from the Philippines over the past year.
Those changes are gratifying. They show a recognition that the era of Japanese imperialism ended more than a half century ago, and that 21st century Japan bears no resemblance to the rapacious, expansionist Japan of that earlier era. Modern Japan is a conservative, status quo power that would be a stabilizing force against aggression, not a source of aggression.
Japan needs to seize the opportunity afforded by the changing attitude of its neighbors. It is time for the SDF to play a realistic security role in East Asia and beyond. No rational person would object if Tokyo provided combat forces for the struggle against Osama bin Laden and his terrorists.
It is time for Japan to fully rejoin the ranks of the great powers. And the United States needs to help with that transition. U.S. officials have not only allowed Japan to get away with free riding on the U.S. security guarantee, they have openly discouraged Japan from venturing beyond the status of being Washington's logistical helpmate. That attitude must be discarded.
U.S. leaders ought to make it clear to Japan -- and to that country's neighbors -- that Washington no longer objects to Japan's playing a full-fledged security role. Indeed, the United States should state explicitly that it expects Japan to do so.