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Japan must stop playing with fire

A few days before the 120th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, Japan reinterpreted Article 9 of the Constitution to expand its military role, which should be cause for concern for not only China, but also the whole world.

The international community should not forget how Japan wreaked havoc on its neighbours, especially China, before and during World War II. It also should not underestimate the potential risks that Japan's exercise of collective self-defense rights pose to the region and beyond.

The constitutional reinterpretation engineered by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gives Japan the right to use force-to the minimum degree necessary-in the absence of an appropriate alternative to thwart a perceived or real attack on it or a country with which it has close ties. It also can use force when there are signs of an attack that could threaten the existence of the Japanese state and/or subvert Japanese people's right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

According to the original interpretation, Japan could exercise the right to self-defence only when there was an imminent and illegitimate act of aggression against the country and no other appropriate means to repel such aggression, but the use of armed forces was limited to the minimum necessary level. That meant Japan was only entitled to exercise the right to self-defence. The Abe government has now widened Japan's military options-right to collective self-defence by reinterpreting Article 9.

Jiro Yamaguchi, professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo, wrote in his recent column for The Japan Times that exercising the right to collective self-defence in essence means gutting the war-renouncing spirit of the post-war Constitution. He also wrote that Abe was ignoring an important lesson from Japan's militarist past that once a war breaks out, restraints such as "minimum necessary" use of force tend to become meaningless. Therefore, Japan's reinterpretation of Article 9 to serve its political agenda violates the constitutional spirit and is devoid of any legal or moral sanction. In other words, it is indicative of the fundamental change in Japan's defence posture and will have far-reaching consequences for the region and the world as a whole.

Abe's move has already divided the Japanese society, with the opposition parties and a large percentage of the people condemning the reinterpretation. In fact, a Japanese man set himself on fire in central Tokyo in late June in an apparent protest against the move. Also, 58 per cent of the respondents to an opinion poll conducted by Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun on June 27-28 said they were opposed to Abe's move and 71 per cent feared Japan could get dragged into a war if it exercised the right to collective self-defence.

But Abe and his fellow Liberal Democratic Party leaders have ignored public opinion and pushed the legislature to approve the reinterpretation because the LDP has majority in both houses of parliament. With the controversial bill being passed, the Japanese government is expected to revise the Constitution and create a set of laws to bid adieu to Japan's post-war pacifism.

With the implementation of such a policy change, the Abe government is likely to expedite its military build-up, facilitate the development of the defence sector, and gradually increase arms exports and strengthen its military presence in areas of conflict overseas. In stark contrast to portraying itself as a peace-loving country before the international community, Japan seems to be preparing to export not peace but weapons and provocative ideas.

Japan's dramatic shift from its post-war pacifist stance has a direct bearing on China. Although Abe recently said that Japan would not take part in multilateral combat operations such as the US-led war in Iraq, the Japanese government can always find an excuse to do so. So, if China is forced into a conflict with another country over a territorial dispute, Japan could possibly invoke the right to collective self-defence and line up against China.

The United States' relative silence on the developments in Japan suggests its tacit support for Abe. The US not only dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan to surrender in World War II, but also led the Allied occupation of Japan after the war.

The US also should know that right-wing Japanese hate it for heaping such humiliation on Japan. And the day their anti-US sentiments get out of control, they will target the US in the same way that they have targeted China.

Abe wants Japan to get back its pre-war status as a "normal state" so that it can develop as a military superpower and boss around the region again. But he should realise that great changes have taken place since World War II, and Japan, despite still enjoying certain advantages, lags behind China in overall potential for growth, and has been outshone by South Korea in many areas and dwarfed by Russia in hard diplomacy.

More importantly, China is no longer the country it was 120 years ago and, therefore, Japan should not commit the folly of starting a war with its western neighbour.

The author is a professor of Japan studies at China Foreign Affairs University.


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