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Japan releases bottled up 'genie' of war

Drawing comparisons between European tensions in the lead up to World War I and current relations in the Far East between Japan and China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called on the world community to stand up to Beijing. Clearly, Abe is worried another world war could break out, presumably because he perceives the global community lacks interest in rolling back China's quest to become a strong military power. Although he did not suggest it, his message is quite clear: Japan will rearm to protect itself and to prevent a strong China from becoming belligerent.

Faced with a similar strategic uncertainty in the 1930s, Japan abandoned the Washington Treaty (1921-1922) and the London Naval Treaties of 1930 and 1936, which imposed a limit on its growing Imperial Navy. Subsequently, a rearmed Japan waged a long war, including the second invasion of China in 1937, prior to the establishment of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in Southeast Asia.

Parallels drawn between current China-Japan relations and the build-up to World War I are inaccurate. Ratcheting tensions, mainly between Germany and England, led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in June 1914. These tensions were driven mainly by ideological differences, rising nationalism in Germany and, most importantly, the desire on the part of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his ministers to dominate Europe and to project power overseas. Backed by a robust economy and a strong army, Germany mistakenly thought it could defeat the naval supremacy of Britain.

The current political rift between China and Japan is nowhere near as wide as witnessed by the world prior to the outbreak of global war in 1914 and 1939.The quarrels are of a different nature. Contrary to what some observers have suggested, the arms race between China and Japan is not comparable with what Germany and England experienced prior to World War I.

History might not repeat itself but, as Mark Twain put it, it does rhyme. Fear is growing that the war that blasted Europe for more than four years (1914-1918), will echo in our part of the world if the international community fails to reign in China.

As Japan's most right-wing and conservative second-time prime minister in recent years, Abe has to appear hawkish to his people, just as Kaiser Wilhelm did in 1914. There is a difference, though. Unlike the Kaiser, Abe is not under the control of the military - not yet. Nevertheless, Kaiser Wilhelm wanted a war and he got one. If Abe aspires to the same, he will also get one. This is how history might rhyme.

Revising Article 9 of its Constitution would allow Japan to re-arm, maintain a military and renounce peace as a national policy. Abe's plan to raise defence spending by almost 5 per cent over the next five years marks a turning point in Tokyo's post-war the policy. His decision to beef up the Japan Self Defence Force (JSDF) is disturbing, coming as it does amid uncertainties in the region. Currently, the JSDF has 250,000 soldiers in active service plus 60,000 reservists. With more than 50,000 American troops in the country, the number of armed military personnel in Japan is relatively large.

The budget for the JSDF (including the US forces) is large. At US$60 billion (Bt1.95 trillion) in 2012, Japan spends more than India or Germany on defence. But it spends $3 billion less on the military than the UK, a nuclear state. By comparison, the military budget for the 10 Asean countries in 2012 was only $23 billion.

The JSDF is well equipped and well led. The Maritime Self-Defence Forces of Japan boast more frigates, submarines and mine warfare craft than the British Royal Navy or the French Navy. Japan has more ships in its merchant marine fleet and a more advanced ship-building industry than either the UK or France.

Japan has a slight edge over the UK and France in terms of sea-power capability. Tokyo might lack the naval capability to project power enjoyed by its counterparts in the UK or France, but its sea power assets are impressive. These assets include the merchant marine, the ship-building industry, marine science education, oceanography expertise, maritime technology and maritime enforcement agencies like the coast guard. Like all other states, Japan needs these assets to develop a coherent national sea-power policy.

Japan's land forces have more towed artillery pieces than their counterparts in the UK or France. Similarly, its air force boasts a bigger fleet than either European power.

Under Abe, the JSDF will be equipped with the state-of-the-art-offensive conventional weapon systems including drones, missiles and robotics - and it may opt for nuclear weapons too. Some experts claim Japan has the capability to assemble a nuclear bomb in 90 days.

Whether Japan can have "a comprehensive defensive posture that can completely defend our nation", as a hedge against an uncertain future influenced by China, is both a question of economics and political will. By revising the 1947 Constitution, Abe has intentionally released the "military genie" from the bottle of our dark past.

BA Hamzah is a scholar who specialises in military history.


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