The controversy over the "reinterpretation" of the Japanese constitution – which would allow the military to engage in "collective defense" overseas – is itself being misinterpreted. Instead of signaling a revival of Japanese nationalism, it is in reality a reassertion of Nippon’s subservience to the United States.
Another misinterpretation is the typically lazy characterization by Western journalists of Japan’s anti-interventionist constitution as "pacifist": it is no such thing. The constitution allows the military to defend the country against attack – that’s why they call it the Japanese Defense Force (JDF). What this "reinterpretation" does is make it possible for the JDF to engage in overseas missions under the direction of its US
This is yet another embarrassing episode in the Obama administration’s "Asian pivot," which started off with the dispatch of a few thousand US troops to a new base in Australia and then trailed off into nothingness as the Middle East re-erupted. The "pivot" is based on all sorts of assumptions about China’s intentions – and alleged "rise" as a military power – that have little if anything to do with reality.
In fact, China spends a tiny fraction of its GDP on its military, compared to the United States, and its power to project its forces is severely limited. The Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) is more like a business enterprise than anything else, with huge holdings both inside the country and abroad: it is mainly used to keep the population in line and enrich military leaders. The PLA represents a negligible threat to legitimate American interests in the region.
Chinese claims to the South China Sea are being touted as evidence of Beijing’s imperial ambitions,but these are no more aggressive than the Monroe Doctrine – and far less presumptuous than America’s insistence on treating the Pacific ocean as an American lake. Imagine how seriously the accusation of "aggression" would be taken in Washington if Mexico, Cuba, and surrounding countries started complaining about inordinate American dominance in the Gulf of Mexico. What indeed is the danger in Beijing’s claims: that they’ll start attacking commercial shipping and close the sea lanes? Since they profit the most from such commercial activity there is no chance of that – unless, of course, the Americans create an incident.
The alleged danger of war between China and Japan is vastly overblown: it is a form of theater enacted mainly for the benefit of domestic audiences. In spite of a small drop in trade recently, a broader overview shows commercial activity between the two countries is at an all-time high and continues to rise. The two countries are in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement. War between China and Japan? Left to themselves, there would be zero chance of that: it’s only the American insistence on the dangerous idea of "collective defense" that threatens the peace of the region.
The very idea of "collective security" is inherently dangerous, for it blows minor disputes into major confrontations, spreading conflict rather than containing it. This is the lesson of World War I, which turned a local conflict over control of a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a continental conflagration. The Great War that destroyed a great civilization and empowered both the Nazis and Bolsheviks was due entirely to the system of entangling alliances that dragged in the major European powers. Today we are replicating that system all over the world, and in the Far East this policy has particularly dangerous implications.
This is because the heavy hand of history continues to bear down on the region, where the prospect of a new era of unparalleled prosperity is continually depressed by bitter memories. Those memories are the result of endless interference by the Western powers: they are, most of all, the tragic legacy of Anglo-American imperialism, which set Japan against China as early as 1914.
Although it was the American Commodore Matthew Perry who broke the longstanding "isolationism" of Japan’s hermit kingdom, it was the British who planted their flag deepest in the previously virgin soil of Nippon. In spite of fierce resistance from Japanese traditionalists, who knew better than to surrender their cultural independence and sovereignty to the duplicitous gaijin, Japanese "progressives" won the internal battle and launched a campaign of rapid "modernization."
The "modernizers" disdained traditional Japanese dress, cutting off their topknots and building bad imitations of Tudor mansions as they dismantled the samurai and centralized all power in Tokyo. What they learned at the knee of the British Foreign Office was the policy of imperialism, and under London’s influence they joined the scramble for colonies in the region. Their reward for entering the Entente alliance against Germany and the Central Powers was gobbling up great chunks of China as well as occupying islands formerly controlled by the Germans.
The symbiosis of British and Japanese imperialism was epitomized by the Japanese move into Singapore, where they helped put down a rebellion against British colonial rule. However, in a textbook case of blowback, the onset of World War II augured a turning of the table. Japanese emulation of all things British, instead of limning Pygmalion, turned into a reenactment of Mary Shelley Frankenstein.
After a brief internal struggle over which way the Japanese would expand their "co-prosperity sphere" – north against the Soviet Union or south against the British – the “go south” faction won out. It was a fateful mistake.
Drawn into the war by an alliance with Germany, Japan was reduced to its present status: an occupied country under the heel of the Anglo-Saxon boot. And the only reason for the weight of that boot pressing down on Japanese necks is the craven willingness of the political class – exemplified by Abe – to leap when Washington says jump.
In spite of its vaunted claim to "world leadership," Washington is increasingly unable to back up its hegemonic pretensions with anything other than embarrassing bluster. Our badly overextended empire is costing us money we’re borrowing from … China. To imagine our politicians will stop their spending spree in order to confront Beijing is pure fantasy. So they’re creating proxies who will faithfully carry out their marching orders: think of it as a form of contracting out – a replica, come to think of it, of how the Japanese policed Singapore on London’s behalf in 1914.
A century later Tokyo has yet to learn the lesson of history. Washington, for its part, is unteachable.
The Japanese people are not supportive of this move, in spite of anti-Chinese fearmongering by the political class. A manufactured dispute over a few uninhabited atolls is being run up the flagpole, but my sense is the Japanese people aren’t buying it.
They have other concerns, mostly economic. Stuck in a Keynesian-induced slump for decades, the Japanese economy is listless and approaching levels where it needs more life-support. And re-militarization is just what Japan’s largely state-directed economy is crying out for – at least in the minds of Japanese officials.
As John T. Flynn pointed out in 1940, as World War II raged, there are only a limited number of projects government money can be poured into before the central planners run out of politically viable options. After that, they turn to making the weapons of war – and preparing for war.
This is fifty percent about money: American arms makers are licking their chops, awaiting all those Export-Import Bank subsidies that will allow the financing of the Japanese rearmament bonanza. Abe is licking his chopsticks in anticipation of what he imagines will be a shot in the arm for the slumping Japanese economy.
The other half of the equation is the vindictive jealousy of our revolting political class, which looks with envy at China’s growing prosperity instead of viewing it as an economic opportunity. China is the global factory, a role we ceded long ago – first to Japan, and now to Beijing. In a remarkable if uneven course of de-communization, the Chinese people have lifted themselves up by their bootstraps in an Asiatic version of a Horatio Alger novel. This is something to celebrate, not to fear.
Aside from that, however, China’s political class is remarkably brittle, and signs of breakage are popping up all over. Contrary to the conventional view of clueless Western journalists, which portrays the country as a totalitarian monolith, there are thousands of overtly political protests in China every year, many of which devolve into massive riots. As the stench of official corruption pollutes the air – alongside the chemical pollution that makes some cities barely breathable – senior leaders are making an all-out effort to appear to be reining in self-dealing government bureaucrats. The problem is that several of those senior leaders and their families are themselves the worst examples of crony capitalism, Chinese-style.
In short, the days of the Communist party of China may be numbered: in the not so distant future the ruling elite may be too preoccupied with putting down internal insurrections to even think about foreign adventurism.
The real epicenter of instability in the region is the erratic nuclear-armed North Korean regime, and it is here that the move to make Tokyo a full-fledged military partner makes the least sense. Despite Washington’s hopes of a South Korean-Japanese rapprochement – never mind an official alliance – this is highly unlikely. History weighs most heavily on the Korean peninsula, where memories of the Japanese occupation are as fresh as if it had all happened yesterday. Far from reassuring the Koreans, Japanese rearmament scares the daylights out of them.
A close second as far as a premier trouble spot is Taiwan, the self-declared "Republic of China," which has longstanding ties to the Japanese elite. The mainland claim to the island is undiminished by time, and yet, as in the case of Sino-Japanese relations, the economic factor is defusing the potential for war. There is simply too much money riding on uninterrupted trade between Taiwan and the mainland for the leaders of either to seriously consider going to war.
Yet there in the background is Washington pulling the strings of China’s neighbors, whipping up resentment and building a system of mutual "defense" pacts that would instantly blow up the smallest incident into a pretext for a regional conflict.
We hear much about the reemergence of "Japanese nationalism" and even militarism, with this constitutional revisionism as the latest example: this is flat out wrong. Taking on the role of America’s attack dog is the inverse of authentic Japanese nationalism – which must be concerned, first of all, with cutting its leash to Washington. Real Japanese nationalists – if there is such a thing – would focus on ending the American occupation. This means getting all US troops out of Okinawa, where they have been raping, murdering, and robbing the inhabitants for years. And most of all what it would mean is getting the Japanese up off their knees for the first time since the end of World War II.
This doesn’t mean rearming: it means declaring their independence from Washington and their reemergence on the world stage – this time as a example of how refusing to play international power politics is the real road to prosperity and peace.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.