"Earlier last week, 950 personnel from Japan's
Self-Defense Force (SDF) arrived on Indonesia's Aceh
coast, bearing humanitarian aid for victims of last
month's tsunami disaster.
The task force comprising three navy ships and several
helicopters arrived late: other militaries from the
United States and Singapore had already scaled down
similar missions to make way for non-military
Nonetheless, the deployment is historic in both timing
and scope - it constitutes the country's largest mission
since World War II, and represents more proof that Japan
is shrugging out of its straitjacket pacifist
Significantly, the deployment did not provoke negative
reaction in Asia, including Southeast Asian countries
that previously suffered under Japan's wartime
Jusuf Wanandi, from an Indonesian think tank, told the
Straits Times he had absolutely "no problems" with Japan
playing a bigger role in the region, so long as the
Japanese did not "go nuclear" and create a new arms
Japanese officials have indeed been thinking about such
a wider role for the country's military. In its first
defense review in a decade, they sketched out plans for
a more proactive and assertive military last month.
Disaster relief and peacekeeping operations were added
to the SDF's defensive duties in a defense policy
document which candidly fingered North Korea and China
as "grave factors of insecurity."
That review marked the latest step in an often-tentative
Japanese experiment to "modernize" its military that had
begun in the early 1990s, in the wake of the first Gulf
Japan contributed billions of dollars to the U.S. war
chest for that conflict, but sent no troops to liberate
Kuwait. That led to accusations of checkbook diplomacy
which stung some Japanese. The following year, in 1992,
Japan passed laws to allow the SDF to venture abroad, so
long as its troops were under a United Nations mandate.
Over the next decade, Japanese peacekeepers were sent to
countries like Cambodia, Mozambique, Rwanda and Timor
In 2003, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi deployed about
600 troops in Iraq - a move which fuelled controversy
because it was the first time that Japanese forces were
sent to a country still seeing active warfare.
This sparked much soul-searching in the country, and
beyond, about Japan's global role. The capture of three
Japanese as hostages by Islamic militants and the
beheading of another last year upped the ante in the
debate swirling around Koizumi's bid to make Japan a
The problem here, however, is not so much Japan's past -
but its future. While it has repeatedly stressed that
its goals are peaceful, other recent measures have had
countries like China and South Korea on edge.
These include plans to:
- Seek a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council;
- Upgrade its Defense Agency into a full-fledged
ministry (a status lost after World War II);
- Beef up civilian control over the SDF to speed up
response to threats, such as recent incursions into its
territory by North Korean and Chinese vessels;
- Build a mid-range ballistic missile system that can
hit targets in Shanghai, Beijing and Pyongyang:
- Develop jointly with the United States a missile
defense system that will help ensure that any
pre-emptive or retaliatory strikes will be struck down.
The ultimate prize for Koizumi would be the refashioning
of Article 9 of the country's pacifist Constitution,
which expressly forbids Japan from having any armed
forces. He has hitherto stretched the interpretation of
Article 9 to justify his actions.
A new draft, which is expected late this year, will lend
more legitimacy to what one commentator called a "shift
from passive pacifism to proactive pacifism."
" Koizumi is trying to make the Constitution more honest
to reality," said Dr. Hiro Katsumata, a post-doctoral
fellow at Sin-gapore's Institute of Defense and
These moves all portray a Japan that is becoming more
assertive. In November last year, for example, Japan
extracted a rare apology from China after it tracked
down a Chinese nuclear attack submarine in its waters.
Whether Japan's bid for a bigger global role will be
viewed benignly by Ch.ina and South Korea - immediate
neighbors which carry scars of Japan's wartime past - is
"Having Japan as a reinvigorated military power will
significantly alter Asia's political and security
environment and give other regional powers something
else to consider in their own planning," Stratfor, a
U.S.-based intelligence firm, said in a recent report.
There are two competing schools of thought: those who
believe that Tokyo is reverting to its "hegemonic
intent" of old, and pragmatists who argue that Japan is
simply reacting to a deteriorating security environment
- a nuclear-armed North Korea, a more confident Chinese
military and the threat from terrorism.
Japan's recent deployment in Indonesia, the pragmatists
say, is the country's latest bid to add a positive
element to international security.
In the long run, however, only time will tell. And much
of this, say analysts, will depend on China's reactions
to Japan's re-emergence as a military power.
"Japan's planned revision of the Constitution is causing
some tension," professor Zhu Feng, an international
relations lecturer at Beijing University, told the
"But it reflects a new drive for respect in the region.
The majority of the Chinese can understand such an
endeavor." W Choong ST Singapore"