The choice by Japan's main opposition party of Ichiro Ozawa as its new leader last month was not in itself surprising. Mr Ozawa, a veteran lawmaker with a knack for reform, is just what the Democratic Party of Japan needs after some embarrassing setbacks. It is worth noting, however, that Mr. Ozawa, a former member of the ruling Liberal Democratic party, shares with other top candidates to replace Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister, a belief that Japan should play a bigger role in Asia.
In this respect, Mr. Ozawa's ascendancy to the DJP leadership, more than the differences in style between the four leading LDP politicians Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, Taro Aso, and Sadakazu Tanigaki, reveals a trend in Japanese politics with important strategic implications. In the past few years, policymakers in Tokyo have grown more confident and assertive, redefining the uses of military force that are considered legitimate under Japan's officially pacifist constitution.
This trend has not been welcomed in east Asia, where many people worry that any revision, either to Japan's constitution or to the US-Japan alliance, would automatically signify a renunciation of the pacifist foreign policy currently enshrined within Article 9 of the constitution.
But Japan's emergence as a regional power is being welcomed in Washington. US military power, while still unmatched in absolute terms, cannot maintain a dominant position in all parts of the globe. The US military was straining under the burdens of global obligations that outstripped its capabilities even before the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only exacerbated those pressures. Accordingly, US policymakers are seeking ways to quietly devolve security responsibilities to wealthy, democratic allies. Japan is a good place to start, and the process of devolution is already taking place. Late last month, Donald Rumsfeld, US defense secretary, and his Japanese counterpart, General Fukushiro Nukaga, reached an agreement to facilitate the relocation of US marines from the southern Japanese island of Okinawa to Guam, a US territory.
A US-Japan strategic relationship that more closely resembles an alliance in the traditional sense of the term, as opposed to the current patron-client relationship, can endure because it is consistent with public opinion on both sides of the Pacific. The Japanese are anxious for their country to behave, and to be treated, as a "normal country" that is, a country responsible for defending its interests and not dependent on the US. Americans seem weary of their onerous defense budget and open to changes that would allow the US military to step back from its role as the world's policeman. Meanwhile, Japan's Self Defense Force has become a formidable military force whose ground, maritime and air components boast nearly 240,000 active-duty personnel. In terms of defense spending, Japan spends more than France, Russia, and Germany, and almost three times as much as India.
A Japanese military, operating independently of the US but still constrained by the cautious (even pacifist) impulses of the public, could be an important factor for regional stability. It could, for example, provide a credible deterrent to offensive actions by North Korea against Japan, and might inhibit Pyongyang from acting aggressively against other countries. Overall, east Asian countries should welcome the emergence of a regional power capable of providing a strategic counterweight to a rising China.
Japan is the one regional power best suited to play this role. Even if the Japanese revise their constitution, they will retain their skepticism about the use of military force and an equally strong determination to maintain firm civilian control over the military. Recent controversies over Mr. Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni shrine for Japan's war dead and a separate but related row over textbooks that play down Japanese wartime abuses should not be seen as evidence of resurgent Japanese nationalism. Although there may be a nationalist fringe within Japan pining for a return to martial glory, such individuals remain on the margins of Japanese society.
Mr. Koizumi is expected to step down as prime minister in September, but his successor will share his desire to clarify the military's status under Japan's constitution and to establish a more equal strategic partnership with America. US-Japanese relations that have been shaped by Mr. Koizumi's strong friendship with President George W. Bush will endure long after both men pass from the political scene.