On Friday, Japanese Prime Minister Abe called for a summit "as soon as possible" between Japan and China to quell rising tensions between the two countries. He noted that a meeting of regional Foreign Ministers was required at minimum. The problem is the Senkaku Islands in East China Sea, where the two countries have been dangerously testing each other's resolve over the past year. On July 24 Chinese Coast guard and Japanese military vessels stared each other down, and Japan scrambled fighter Jets in the area, both fortunately without incident. Abe met with VP. Biden in Singapore where Abe was bolstering ties with S.E Asian nations. Subsequently, the White House issued a statement that the islands were covered in the U.S.-Japan Security treaty whereby the U.S. pledges to defend Japan in case of conflict.
President Obama should have been the one calling for these talks given the direction relations are headed, and how much the U.S. has at stake in the region both from security and economic perspectives.
Japan has two choices; one is to stand pat with its current structure and dependence on the U.S., the second is to repeal Article 9, which was imposed by the U.S. in 1945, after Japan's WWII defeat. Specifically, Article 9 prohibits Japan from maintaining a standing army, declaring that Japan "renounces war as a sovereign right," and states that it will never maintain "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential...". Without a standing army, Japan is dependent solely on the resources of, and its security agreement with, the U.S.
The second has important consequences. Most importantly, it would provide a counter force in Asia in the wake of China's build-up, acting as a deterrent to Chinese aggression. It would also be a security backdrop to the growing closeness to the China and Russia.
Over time a more military independent Japan could reduce America's spending on its protection, enabling the U.S. to spend more domestically and other peace-keeping priorities. However, in the meeting in Singapore V.P. Biden underscored the U.S.' decision to concentrate 60 percent of U.S. air and naval power in the Asia-Pacific.
There are negative consequences to Japan repealing Article 9. It would clearly lead to further tension with China, adding another capable fighting force in Asia allied to America; some would suggest upping the possibility potential for conflict.
But the U.S. would not be wrong to support Japan's right to defend itself with a "real" military force. At present Japan cannot offensively orient its approach, weaponry, tactics, or training, leaving it with essentially a well-financed, ultra-professional police force.
Japanese leaders and the U.S. must also consider other geopolitical realities with the rise in Chinese clout and actions.
What is known both in Washington and Tokyo is that while there is an understanding that the U.S. will honor its security treaty with Japan that:
1. The U.S. is not going to send troops into battle to protect a few uninhabited islands.
2. Japan has to deal with the plain fact of China's ever-growing leverage with the U.S., not just by being the leading purchaser of debt -- keeping the U.S. economy humming along, but as the world's largest market potential for American goods and services, keeping N.Korea in check with its tremendous amount of influence over the closed nation. (China is Pyongyang's biggest trading partner, main supplier of energy and food, and sits on its border-a deterrent to foreign aggressors).
3. China has grown to a critical state of importance to much of the rest of the world's nations as well due to its market, as a manufacturing base, and its capital investments -- with its ever-growing political influence now reaching from Africa to the Middle East expanding as its economic muscle does. China is a strong and important player to the rest of the world not just the U.S..
4. Abe's overtures toward S. East Asian countries, which are wary of China's territorial claims and growing influence, notably, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, and the Philippines are astute and have been well received. They should continue, done with the reminder that Japan's Foreign Aid led to the foundation of infrastructure, telecommunications, training, along with investment allowing for the S.E. Asian economic juggernaut to become a reality.
There is an added wrinkle to the situation. South Korea Japan relations are recondite. Although a key U.S. ally, Korea does not consider itself an ally of Japan and objects at times what it considers to be nationalistic overtures by Japan. For much of the first half of the 20th century Korea was a "protectorate state", essentially a colony of Japan and from which a host of extremely controversial and sensitive issues linger today. Moreover, S. Korea's potential reaction is further convoluted by the fact that Park Geun-hye, who earlier this year became South Korea's first female president, has practical political considerations which affect her moves related to Japan; she doesn't want to be seen as easy toward any Japan militarization, because her father was an officer in Japan's 'Special Forces'. Her official position toward Japan is stern. Sensitive diplomatic discussions with S. Korea are critical in any diplomacy regarding Japan's fundamental change in Japan's military capabilities.
The Obama administration should jumpstart a meeting of regional leaders exactly as those called for by PM Abe rather than continue its passiveness, for its own interest and that of the region.