By Matt Purple, April 21, 2016
Article I of the U.S. Constitution requires Congress to “provide for the common defense.” And with America as the globe’s only undisputed superpower, sometimes it seems like that means protecting the entire world.
Our defense spending is greater than the next eight nations combined, and our military bases sprawl from Germany to South Korea. This allows us to project power, but it’s also resulted in freeloading, as other countries assume the United States will defend them and shift their appropriations elsewhere. The most vivid examples of this are Western European nations, many of whom are spending so little on their militaries that they’re barely eligible to be in NATO.
The free rider issue has also manifested itself with Japan. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, passed after the Allies prevailed in World War II, both repudiates “war as a sovereign right of the nation” and stipulates that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”
This has been interpreted in many ways, from outright pacifism to maintaining only a defensive posture, but it’s effectively made the Japanese reliant on America when it comes to the use of force. The country’s light military, tellingly named the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), has never discharged a firearm at an enemy, and is prohibited from maintaining powerful weapons like aircraft carriers. Japan spends only about 1 percent of its GDP on defense, compared to 3.5 percent for the United States.
It seems like a glamorous idea—a demilitarized island nation that nurtures its economy rather than snarling outwards—until it crashes headlong into cold geopolitical reality. Japan’s neighborhood is rapidly becoming more dangerous. China has been making territorial claims to parts of the South and East China Seas, including the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which could threaten key shipping lanes. China has also allowed its barking little ally North Korea much too long a leash. Earlier this year, Kim Jong-un’s regime claimed to have developed a hydrogen bomb, and it continues to test ballistic missiles that could one day deliver a nuclear payload.
Until recently, Japan’s attitude towards defense was one of chastened pacifism. Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has rejected this approach. Starting this month, Japan will begin implementing the largest defense budget in its history, and last year Abe persuaded his country’s parliament to jettison the requirement that Japanese armed forces only be used for self-defense. He’s even called for Article 9 to be amended so Japan is afforded more flexibility with its armed forces.
The public initially opposed this, with anti-war protests springing up across the country. And while a late-March survey from the Yomiuri newspaper found that the Japanese disapprove of Abe’s curtailment of Article 9 by a margin of 47 percent to 38 percent, that’s closed a bit since September when it was 58 percent to 31 percent. Part of the reason why is a sense by the Japanese that they don’t want to be dependent on the United States. This is quite sensible from our side of the Pacific, too. Japan is a thriving, prosperous, committed ally, and the third-largest economy in the world. For a nation like that to project power in such proximity to nettlesome China and North Korea would avail us greatly.
The United States benefits from an orderly and peaceful world, but it also cannot be an omniscient global police force, helicoptering across oceans and rappelling in whenever there’s trouble. Consequently, it relies on allies to buttress the peace and contain threats within their own geographical regions. Sometimes this results in adverse policies, like our endless arms deals with Saudi Arabia. Advanced and liberal Japan providing for its own defense isn’t one of them.
This isn’t an embrace of militarism; it’s a cold-eyed acknowledgment of East Asian reality. Japan is a staunch ally—while the French stayed home during the ill-fated war against Saddam Hussein, Japanese troops were dispatched for the first time since World War II to help America secure post-war Iraq. That great country has suffered enough for its 70-year-old conduct. It’s time for Japan to become, as the reformist politician Ichiro Ozawa put it, a “normal nation,” one that helps shoulder the burden in an increasingly chaotic world.
Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities and deputy editor for Rare Politics.
This piece was originally published by Rare on April 21, 2016. Read more HERE.
Photo courtesy of wikimage.