2017 – the Year of Profound Changes in Japan and in the Entire Region

02.02.2017 Author: Vladimir Terehov

452312312321Such phrases as “the current year brings the world a set of new and tough-to-predict challenges” can often be found in articles attempting to predict the upcoming year of our ongoing history.

The banality of such phrases can not exclude the fact that they can be applied to 2017, perhaps, more so than ever before in the last two-three decades.

The image of the new global game that started to form right after the end of the Cold War by trial and error may become clear this year. Its primary and most significant feature is that the focus of the game that has been in the European – Atlantic area for centuries is shifting to the Asia-Pacific Region.

Evidence of this irreversible process includes the pointlessness of NATO, which is evident to everybody (almost without exception), and its civil subsidiary the European Union – the two dinosaurs of the Cold War period. They are both doomed to extinction despite the desperate efforts made over the last two-three years to continue their unnecessary existence (except for some Eastern European fringe groups and certain circles in Russia).

The new major players are appearing in the new global game that is now developing in the Asia-Pacific Region. In fact, one of these players remains from the old set-up: the USA, whose role on the global stage will face radical changes this year. In this regard, the election of Donald Trump as the US President (which looked like a chain of absurd coincidences and “conspiracies”) reflected the newly formed state needs.

The other two major players are China and Japan. Moreover, the problems faced by both in the upcoming year will be substantially determined by the continuing uncertainty about the extent and direction of the transformation in the foreign policy of the USA – the main opponent of China and a key ally for Japan.

The upcoming 19th session of the Communist Party of China will deal with the search for answers to the various challenges in domestic and foreign policy. The session is planned for the second half of 2017. This event may be a meaningful event in the China’s development process and that of the situation in the Asia-Pacific Region as a whole.

As for Japan, the new year may become a landmark one in the long-outlined “normalization” of the country. The main feature of Japanese “abnormality” (under the convention of this category in an increasingly insane world) is Article 9 of the Constitution. This article stipulates, first, that the use of military force in addressing emerging foreign policy challenges has been outlawed “forever” and, second (and therefore), obtaining their own armed forces is not permitted.

However, the second postulate already looks like an anachronism as, in fact, Japan has long had one of the world’s most powerful military forces: “the Japanese Self-Defense Forces”. Thus, the quite probable elimination of the second postulate of Article 9 will result only in the renaming of the current Japanese Self-Defense Forces into what they are: i.e. “armed forces”.

According to opinion polls, the country’s citizens are ready to align the title existing armed forces with reality. However, they are not (yet) ready to agree to these forces implementing the whole range of tasks that are assigned to the Armed Forces of a “normal” state. For example, if the latter is in alliance with some other “normal” state, it means that each of them is ready to provide (under certain circumstances) armed assistance to its ally.

The first postulate of Article 9 makes this almost impossible for Japan. If the United States covers Japan with a “nuclear security umbrella” under the bilateral Treaty of 1960, the quite capable Japanese Navy Forces do not have the right to aid the American fleet (with food, for example) if when moving towards Japan, they face offshore attacks from some “third” state.

Even if the new raft of legislation in the defense field adopted in autumn 2015 somehow opens up a way to align the obligations in the US-Japanese alliance, the first postulate of Article 9 remains an insurmountable obstacle to any large-scale development of this trend. In addition, a similar imbalance (albeit, of course, less evident) can be observed in the allied relations between the USA and Europe.

Although the origins of the aforementioned “imbalance” were fully rational and mutually beneficial motives for both parties, the Americans are currently no longer interested in them. Their entire existence causes dissatisfaction among US citizens, which, finally, contributed to the victory of D. Trump in the previous presidential elections.

The policy of the Japanese political elite of completely rejecting all restrictions in the defense sector is caused by the objective need to maintain the alliance with the USA (alongside the factor of China’s comprehensive growth). This is hardly possible now without (at least a partial) alignment of the obligations of the parties. The major goal of the political career of the Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is the revision of the post-war Constitution.

In an effort to overcome the resistance of the Japanese to the process of full “normalization” of the country, the government has played the “patriotism” card since mid last year transparently hinting that the current Constitution was actually written by a group of lawyers from the occupation administration of General D. MacArthur.

These efforts have failed so far. In general, the Japanese are satisfied with the post-war status quo regardless of the author of the constitutional base. However, this fact only strengthens Abe’s determination to achieve his goal, as evidenced by his statement on January 4, 2017, during a visit to the main Shinto shrine in Ise.

Recalling that the coming year will be the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the current Constitution, Abe spoke in support of “studying the lessons of the past, and proceeding with new nation-building for the next 70 years.”

Phrases like “new nation-building” and “responsibility for upcoming challenges” surely refer to the statements made by some members of his Cabinet (in particular, the Defense Minister Tomomi Inada) on the need to adopt its “own” Constitution.

Currently, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its “junior partner” Komeito Party hold the necessary two-thirds of votes in both houses of Parliament, which is the prerequisite for the launch of the extremely difficult procedure of making constitutional amendments.

However, its initiators will face an “ambush” at the final stage of this procedure when they need to win a majority in a national referendum, which is easier said that done. It’s worth remembering that Japanese society is not ready to abandon the comfortable conditions of its foreign policy secured by the current Constitution.

The prospects of overcoming even the most passive opposition of the public look rather doubtful without the support of the opposition parties. Therefore, the Liberal Democratic Party is urging the opposition to start at least discussing the need for and the content of amendments. The opponents have apparently agreed to “talk” about these issues but they certainly will not support the draft abolition (at least) of the first postulate of Article 9.

As for the prospects of adopting constitutional amendments, a “favourable” change in the public mood might be secured by the simultaneous deterioration of the relations with China and active steps to be taken by D. Trump from his pre-election statements of a “neo-isolationist” character.

If the first factor looks set to be more or less “favourable” (i.e. there are no clear improvements in Japan-China relations), the American foreign policy towards “neo-isolationism” has evidently been abandoned.

In any case (according to “certain sources”), William Hagerty, nominated by D. Trump as the new US Ambassador, will arrive in Tokyo and, as is much-anticipated by the Japanese elite, will be: “indispensable for strengthening Japan-U.S. ties“.

As the saying goes, the Japanese Prime Minister’s prayers have been heard by D. Trump and by the acting US President.

Now, it is difficult to say how the specific implementation of the external trends outlined above will affect the plans of the current leadership to make 2017 a turning point in the “normalization” of the country. The fact that Japan is on the verge of ground-breaking changes is evidenced by another very important signal received in August 2016 when Emperor Akihito declared his intention to resign “for health reasons“.

However, all the details that accompany this statement (which is wholly exceptional in Japanese history) deserve additional consideration.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook