Beijing's sparring with Abe has produced underwhelming results. An international public relations blitz following Abe's Yasukuni trip -- to remind the world of Japan's past aggression and warn of resurgent militarism -- resulted not in a chorus of condemnation of Tokyo but in wariness of excessive Chinese rhetoric. Nor did harsh criticism of Abe undermine his standing at home.
If China becomes aggressive, Asian countries like India and Australia -- which are already disturbed by China's assertiveness in the South China Sea -- will join Japan in the effort to offset China's power. But, as things stand, a strategy of containment would be a mistake. After all, the best way to engender enmity is to treat China as an enemy. A more effective approach, spearheaded by the U.S. and Japan, would focus on integration, with a hedge against uncertainty. American and Japanese leaders must shape the regional environment in such a way that China has incentives to act responsibly, including by maintaining strong defense capabilities.
It's taken a long time for Germany and Japan to recover from the Second World War. After enduring the indignity of military occupation, they regained sovereignty only by guaranteeing against future threats to peace. Germany's new constitution only authorized military force in self-defense or in collaboration with collective security agreements. Japan's Article Nine went further, "forever renounc[ing] ... the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes." But this post-war settlement is unraveling before our eyes. The Obama administration must learn to distinguish the urgent from the truly fundamental. Unless it rethinks our traditional post-war partnerships, it risks an authoritarian Japan and a profoundly alienated Germany -- destroying one of the greatest legacies of the twentieth century.
As reported early Wednesday, Shinzo Abe's LDP has succeeded in reaching an agreement with New Komeito to lift the ban on Japan's ability to engage in collective self-defense. China has been vocal in opposing any moves that give Tokyo more freedom to build up and make use of military force. Surprisingly, then, the response was fairly muted. It focused not on how Abe's collective self-defense policy will affect China, but how it will affect Japan itself.
A few weeks ago at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Shinzo Abe made a bold pitch to Asia to buy in on a new type of Japanese leadership. According to Mr. Abe, the peace that is at the foundation of the Asia Pacific's unprecedented growth can no longer be guaranteed. Without naming China by name, Mr. Abe warns of a new danger that looms on the horizon. The Asia Pacific needs Japanese leadership and a new affirmation of "international law."
If Asia is to build trust and avoid a regional arms race, a framework under which the region's governments publicly disclose their military budgets needs to be established. More broadly, keeping military expansion in check and improving mutual understanding among national defense authorities are the paramount issues now facing Asia.
Many worry that a self-reflective and retrenching America is leaving a void in the world's balance of power. But hold your breath, here is Shinzo Abe coming to the rescue. Before the Americans sign their outsourcing contract with Tokyo, they would be well advised to listen carefully to Mr. Abe's Shangri-La speech. In his concluding remarks, he said that the New Japanese are really no different from their parents and grandparents in seeking to contribute to the world. For every Chinese and every Korean, it begs the question: Just who were those grandfathers Mr. Abe was so proudly referring to?
The Asia-Pacific region has achieved tremendous growth in the span of a single generation. Regrettably, a large and relatively disproportionate share of the fruits of that growth is going toward military expansion. The sources of instability include not only the threat of weapons of mass destruction, but also -- and more immediately -- efforts to alter the territorial status quo through force or coercion. And those efforts are taking place largely at sea. We do not welcome dangerous encounters by fighter aircraft and vessels at sea. What Japan and China must exchange are words. Should we not meet at the negotiating table, exchange smiles and handshakes, and get down to talking?
Today, Asia once again faces a historical challenge. It is standing at the crossroads between progress and retrogression. Why and how have we come this far? Partly, this is accounted for by the new and divergent outlook for the regional order -- a rising China, a resurgent Japan, strong Russia, anachronistic North Korea obsessed with the pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the United States who is rebalancing to Asia. It looks like the "Pandora's Box" is being opened, with all sorts of problems -- both old and new -- popping up, complicating the already very complex situation. Any of these developments, if mishandled or left unchecked, could escalate into a much more serious situation with far reaching consequences for the region.
In the past week, Abe created for himself considerably more political space to act as a strategic partner, not only to India, but also to Japan's other allies, particularly the United States. Quietly, a panel appointed by Abe's government last week offered a reinterpretation of a key element of Article 9 of Japan's constitution. For the first time since the Pacific War's end in 1945, Japan's Self-Defense Forces would be able to participate in "collective self-defense" -- meaning that Japan could come to the aid of its allies should they come under attack. Of course, China and others in Asia have tried to muddy this change with the alarmist charge of a return to Japanese militarism. But the new interpretation of Article 9 augurs just the opposite: it embeds Japan's military within an alliance system that has been, and will remain, the backbone of Asia's prevailing structure of peace. If properly understood by China, this can foster a greater strategic equilibrium in the region. It is now possible for Asia's greatest powers -- China, India, Japan, and the U.S. -- to form something akin to the concert system that gave Europe a century of almost complete peace in the 19th century.