Time to re-arm Japan

November 14, 1995|By Thi Lam

PUBLIC OUTRAGE over the rape of an Okinawa school girl by a United States serviceman may finally push the Japanese toward remilitarization, ending 50 years of ''splendid isolation'' under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Despite nascent Asian fears of renewed Japanese expansionism, Japan's remilitarization would greatly enhance the security prospects of the Asia-Pacific region.

For decades Japan, like Germany, has basked in the generosity of its American conqueror, rising from the ashes of World War II to become an economic superpower. But whereas Germany finally broke free of the victor-vanquished complex, actively helping to contain the former Soviet Union as a NATO member, and ultimately integrating itself into the European Union, Japan clung to its post-war insular mentality.

Recently, it has remained conspicuously silent in the face of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea through which pass TC some of the world's most vital shipping lanes. Even when the 1992 Gulf War threatened its Mideast oil supplies, Japan refused to send ground troops to aid the U.S.-led coalition, despite repeated requests from Washington. Instead, it sent money.

But money alone cannot buy security in the Asia Pacific, particularly in an era of U.S. disengagement and new Chinese assertiveness. A growing chorus of domestic critics -- notably New Frontier Party chief and long-time Diet member Ichiro Ozawa -- have warned that Japan risks following the path of ancient Carthage, whose ''belief that wealth alone could sustain a nation ultimately caused its demise.''

Heeding the warning

There are signs that more and more Japanese are heeding the warning. Well before the Okinawa outrage, Japanese voters rejected anti-rearmament left-wing party candidates in elections for parliamentary seats in the Diet. Their loss paved the way for new legislation authorizing deployment of Japan's Self Defense Forces on non-combat U.N. missions. (Two years earlier, Japan sent engineer army units to Cambodia to help rebuild the country's road network under U.N. supervision.)

Meanwhile, Japan and the United States have been working on an agreement to standardize military equipment, similar to those of NATO allies. Even more significant, Ryutaro Hashimoto, the man many consider the country's likely next prime minister, actively favors revising the restrictive U.S.-imposed constitution so that Japan can play a more active role in regional security.

If there is any single factor goading Japan to finally assume its global responsibilities, it is China's growing military power. Only a remilitarized Japan can offer a strategic counter-weight to help stabilize the economically booming region.

European model

But the new rearmament of Japan is not intended as a show of hostility toward Beijing. Rather, the aim is to bring about a cooperation between the two East Asian giants. The model is the cooperation between France and Germany that became the foundation for a peaceful and prosperous European community.

For any long-term Sino-Japanese alliance to work, China -- now undergoing a delicate transition to a post-Deng era -- must also move toward democratization. As the last two centuries have shown, democratic states do not make war on one another; dictatorial regimes do. Indeed, the much celebrated Franco-German cooperation would not have occurred until a twice defeated Germany finally turned democratic.

The West can help this process along through continuing its policy of ''constructive engagement.'' But a ''remilitarized Japan no longer clinging to America's skirt,'' in the words of one political analyst, is also imperative to add firmness to the West's flexibility.

Equally important is Japan's moral rehabilitation. Memories of the Rape of Nanking where hundreds of thousands of Chinese were massacred, and of the Chinese and Korean ''sex slaves'' conscripted by the Imperial Army, remain fresh in Asian minds. Japan needs to emulate Germany in resolutely putting behind its past by unequivocally admitting its responsibility for wartime atrocities. Prime Minister Murayama's public apology in August was one timid step in the right direction.

Increasingly impatient with Japan's weak leadership and political corruption, a new generation of politicians wants to go back to the values and vision that made Japan great after the Meiji renewal of 1868. Just as the Meiji leaders went out into the world, these new leaders want to shake off Japan's post-war insular mentality.

The stability of the Asia-Pacific region hinges on their success.

Thi Lam served as a general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and is the author of ''Autopsy: The Death of South Vietnam (1985).'' He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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