In my previous post I argued that the last few months have seen a spike in punditry claiming that Northeast Asia's status quo is about to change, and that conflict is more likely. Japan's constitutional revisions have provoked exaggerated responses from South Korea and China, while Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent successful trip to South Korea has been interpreted in Japan in a similarly negative manner.
But much of this is exaggerated nationalism and posturing from regional hawks (and some American think tanks) about a stable, but disliked, status quo. As I argued, South Korea is not in fact 'finlandising' or going over to China. Such talk is more indicative of the Japanese right's glee in snubbing Korea whenever possible.
Not to be outdone, one can always rely on Chosun Daily in Korea or the Global Times in China (here is a link of special interest to Australian readers) to overreact to Japanese military developments.
But most of this is overstated and little of it is helpful.
Northeast Asia is fairly stable. It could certainly be better, but compared to many regions, it is doing rather well. Trade and tourism are robust. The problems of state failure and irregular wars, so common elsewhere, are not apparent. As Dave Kang has noted, much of the maritime tension is being 'fought' by fishermen and coastguards. For all the big talk, there has been no war in the region since the 1950s.
So should you really care that Japan 're-interpreted' its constitution? Not so much, for three reasons:
1. Until Japan actually spends more on defence, the 're-interpretation' makes little difference
Japan spends less than 1% of GDP on defence. This is even lower than the European members of NATO, who are routinely castigated by the US for free-riding (as the Ukraine crisis is demonstrating yet again).
It takes huge amounts of money to field comparatively small military forces. The logistical tail (the number of support staff, technicians, trainers, crew, and so on) behind each actual warfighter or platform is longer today than ever before. Modern militaries — basically since World War I — have also increasingly relied on technology and combined arms tactics whose complexity requires even greater resources (Stephen Biddle explains all this nicely in the opening chapters here). The long, troubled, and hugely expensive history of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aptly demonstrates the spiraling costs and troubles of modern military platforms.
So sure, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may want to buy an aircraft carrier, but does a troubled economy have an extra US$5-10 billion for that? Perhaps, but until the budget numbers change, it's all just talk.
2. Unless Japan can actually translate that extra spending into genuine capabilities, that too reduces the importance of the 're-interpretation'
A basic materialist approach to Japanese 're-armament' would simply be to look at GDP percentages. But bigger budgets are not enough either, because money has to be translated into capabilities — the deployment of modern complex platforms by highly skilled technicians in complicated ways (combined arms, the networked battlefield, C4ISR, and so on) to achieve a goal. Very few modern militaries have been able to do that successfully, and most of them in the twentieth century were Western. Just throwing money at the defence ministry is not enough.
Japan too of course had a reasonably effective military in the twentieth century. But World War II was seventy years ago and was followed by a decisive social break against 'bushido', militarism, and so on. Since then the Japanese military has not fought once. No one really knows how well it will fare (a point that applies to all regional militaries, actually). The conventional wisdom seems to be that Japan's navy is the most competent, followed by the air force, then the army, but these are soft qualitative judgements at best. (Here is a good outlet on this issue.)
Finally, it has been widely noted that the Japanese public is either indifferent or opposed to the 're-interpretation'. That should be comforting to those worried about militarisation. Abe may be able to squeeze more resources out of the finance ministry because his parliamentary coalition is unnaturally large due to the quirks of Japanese election law. But without public support (not just tepid uninterest, but genuine support) he will find it hard to build a force capable of much beyond homeland defence. A serious expeditionary or power projection capability — necessary to do anything serious with the Americans in the region — will require public support. At the moment at least, it is not there.
3. Engaging in 'collective self-defence' is a right every other country in the world has. By embracing it, Japan is becoming more, not less, normal, and so more predictable
David Pilling makes the useful point that collective self-defence is the right of every other country, and that Japan moving in that direction is no big deal. Pilling couches the argument in normative language, stating that it is Japan's right to arm itself as it sees fit and align itself with whomever it likes. All that is so, but it is clearly uncomfortable to Seoul and offers fuel for Chinese efforts to isolate Japan in Asia over its alleged militarism.
A better interpretation is that Japan's defence normalisation makes it more like every other country in the world and therefore more predictable. It is Japan's weird post-war state — radically pacifist yet disturbingly unrepentant about the empire, located in Asia but not really a part of the region — that makes it such a hot potato. The more Japan is responsible for its own military and security, the more like every other country it is, and the more it will come under pressure to conform to modern democratic norms on the use of force.
A more independent and normal Japan will be less tied to the US and more a part of its own region where it will have to engage in normal diplomatic back-and-forth, including finding a modus vivendi with South Korea and China. A Japan responsible for its own defence, directly facing the costs of bad behaviour, such as historical denial, is far more likely to come around than one permanently hiding in America's shadow as some kind of weird semi-pariah.
Northeast Asia is fairly stable. China's rise is unnerving, but compared to places like the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean Basin, South Asia, or central Africa, regional politics is fairly predictable. Local elites are nationalist, but they are calculating too. There has not been a major war since the 1950s, and the non-state violence so common elsewhere is non-existent. Nor do regional states spend as much on the military as this year's World War I analogies suggest. There's no need to make it worse with hyperbole.