Terrorist Killings Illustrate Why Japan Must Join the World and Defend Itself

02/16/2015 06:59 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2015
ronniechua via Getty Images

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been edging Japan into global affairs. And his country paid a price: the Islamic State murdered two Japanese hostages. The killers cited Tokyo's provision of $200 million in humanitarian aid to countries battling ISIS.

The double execution triggered a new debate in Japan over its enhanced international role. Seiji Mataichi of the Social Democratic Party complained: "It would only bring us the cycle of terrorism and hatred." Abe was undeterred, declaring: "We will not forgive terrorists, and we will work alongside the international community to make them pay for their sins." Indeed, he justified expanding Japan's global presence "to fulfill our duty of protecting the lives and property of our citizens."

Maybe Tokyo should not have jumped into the Middle East imbroglio. After all, even Washington should have left war with ISIS to those states most threatened by the latter's advance -- most everyone in the region. Japan had even less reason than the U.S. to enter a complicated, multi-sided sectarian war.

However the Abe government has more properly begun taking a more active role in East Asia. While the Islamic State threatened "carnage wherever your people are found" and a "nightmare for Japan," ISIS has demonstrated no international reach. The group kills foreigners who fall into its grasp rather than attacks distant lands. If there is a security threat to Japan, it is posed by North Korea and China, not the Islamic State.

Last month, the Japanese cabinet approved a $42 billion defense budget, the largest ever. Still, that's a low standard since the total remains below one percent of GDP. Last year's hike was just .8 percent. Japan has created a quality force, but has skimped on defense since emerging from U.S. occupation after World War II. Nevertheless, this year's hike will be 2.8 percent and the third increase in a row.

Japanese officials cite increasing threats. Defense Minister Gen Nakatani pointed to the "changing situation" which faces Japan. China has engaged in "dangerous actions." North Korea's endless provocations, and particularly missile and nuclear developments, also have exacerbated Tokyo's concerns.

The historical experience of World War II and hostility of Japan's neighbors were important factors in Tokyo's long aversion to mounting a more robust defense. But so too was the opportunity to take a very cheap ride on the American military. As long as Uncle Sam was willing to pay, why should Japanese taxpayers sacrifice to defend themselves?

Having imposed the famous Article 9 of the "Peace Constitution," which formally banned creation of a military -- Tokyo instead established a "Self Defense Force" -- the U.S. gave Japanese politicians a ready excuse to rebuff requests for Tokyo to do more. One U.S. general referred to American forces as the "cap in the bottle" to prevent Japanese remilitarization. Washington's other allies similarly relied on the U.S. to patrol their neighborhood.

Treating Tokyo as a welfare dependent made sense in the immediate aftermath of World War II. But as Japan grew economically, becoming the world's second-ranking economic power, such military passivity became counterproductive. America paid the biggest price, being stuck defending most of the world -- not just Japan, but increasingly wealthy Europe and others as well. In principle, the president was prepared to sacrifice Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York to defend Tokyo. All Japan had to do in return was agree to be defended.

However, the deal also cost the Japanese. They saved money, to be sure, but the alliance was never one of equals. Instead, Tokyo was dependent, even subservient. Washington looked at Japanese security through an American lens. And Tokyo could not be sure that America would fulfill its obligations if faced with war with a great power -- the Soviet Union during the Cold War and China in coming years. An American president might make a cold-blooded assessment of interests and decide that Japan was not worth a full-scale war against a country with a serious military.

In fact, Abe's more active stance may in part reflect growing doubt in Japan that America will be forever willing to face down China over peripheral issues such as the control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Tokyo may believe them to be an integral part of Japan, but their status matters very little to Washington. The U.S. might be willing to try to bluff Beijing, but as Chinese military capabilities grow the cost of following through will increase dramatically.

Which means the only certain defense for Japan will come from a robust Japanese military.

Japanese rearmament obviously remains a controversial issue. Tokyo's relations with South Korea are in a constant state of disarray if not crisis. Singapore is critical of an increased Japanese role. Beijing is even more hostile to the idea. However, their response is more about politics than security. Observed Brad Glosserman of Pacific Forum CSIS and David Kang of USC: "the idea that Tokyo will be able to threaten its neighbors is just not credible. There is no will, or the capability to do so." Indeed, the Philippines has reversed itself and publicly encouraged Tokyo to do more.

There also was little public enthusiasm in Japan for a more robust international role even before the hostage killings. For years Tokyo has been slowly doing more overseas without changing the constitution. Rather, successive governments engaged in creative interpretation. Abe now wants to amend the document so the law will catch up with practice. Any such effort will have to overcome substantial homegrown opposition.

Abe's coalition partner, the Buddhist New Komeito party -- whose votes are necessary to revise the constitution, not form a government -- has resisted change. The newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun found that support for constitutional revision fell from 44 percent in 2004 to 30 percent last year. Opposition climbed from 48 percent to 60 percent.

However, Washington can encourage change by doing less. Not by hectoring Japan, demanding that Tokyo take one or another step preferred by the U.S. Rather, by having an adult conversation with the Japanese people, informing them that the cheap ride is over. Washington should indicate that it intends to phase out both the "mutual" defense treaty and troop commitment, and bring home its military personnel, especially from over-burdened Okinawa. The two nations still should cooperate where shared interests are at stake, but no longer would America provide military welfare to Tokyo.

Neither Japan nor its neighbors are likely to spend what is necessary so long as Washington is willing to fill the gap. Observed David Kang: "The most obvious explanation for low East Asian defense spending is a robust U.S. security umbrella."

Tokyo's latest military budget increase is merely a start. The SDF plans to add stealth, patrol, and early-warning aircraft, Aegis-equipped destroyers, Ospreys, and amphibious equipment, mostly directed at the burgeoning confrontation with China over the Senkaku Islands. While the U.S. has an interest in Japan's independent, prosperous existence, the former has no similar concern over who controls a half dozen uninhabited islets. If anyone is going to defend that territory, it needs to be Japan.

Broader is the struggle to dominate the region. China is rising, and inevitably will enjoy increased influence. Moreover, Beijing's increased military capabilities are significant, which underlies the PRC's increasing territorial assertiveness. Understandably, Japan does not want to be stuck in a Chinese lake. Chinese military outlays run around $180 billion. They are up eight and a half times in real terms over the last 25 years. While the PRC faces far greater international challenges than Japan -- China is surrounded by countries with which it has been at war over the last century or so -- Japan and its neighbors can ill afford to allow the gap to grow too great.

Thus, Tokyo should do more. The Abe government only plans a five percent real increase in military outlays through 2018. Despite much greater economic strength and rising regional threats, Japan's real military outlays are up just 27 percent over the past quarter century, little more than a percent a year. More is required to help deter Chinese adventurism, guard against North Korean threats, ensure freedom of navigation, and otherwise encourage a stable, peaceful regional order.

Of course, the decision is up to the Japanese people. If they want to reinforce their (recent) pacifist heritage, so be it. But they should not then expect Washington to protect them. Serious countries defend themselves. They don't turn their futures over to other nations, even America, to save a little money.

The tragic killing of the two hostages reinforced domestic concerns over Japanese rearmament. For instance, the Communist Party's Yoshiki Yamashita complained that Prime Minister Abe "is using the latest case to speed up and expand his drive to make Japan a nation that wages war overseas."

That might be true. If so, it wouldn't be the first time that a politician exploited world events for his political advantage. But in this case, at least, the end might justify the means. Americans certainly would benefit if Japan did more to defend itself. Washington no longer can afford to protect rich allies like Tokyo.

This post first appeared at Forbes online.