In recent years a widespread narrative presents post-2012 changes to Japan’s security policy and Article Nine’s interpretation as fundamentally unprecedented and “All About Abe.” The reality, however, is that Japan’s security policy has been undergoing evolutionary, incremental reforms for decades—under both conservative and moderate Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and opposition leaders. Practically significant, de facto change—albeit within remarkably “sticky” normative bounds so far—has occurred repeatedly in response to changing external threat perceptions and shifting domestic political winds.
Desperately Seeking Statesmen
Japan’s self-restraint continues despite its refusal to acknowledge even the existence of a dispute. Ironically, and unfortunately, it is because Japan does not behave provocatively that its policy never makes headlines. Yet its constructive behavior demonstrates that even when a government claims territory “inherently,” acknowledges no dispute, and exercises effective administrative control, it still can choose self-restraint in the interest of regional stability. Meanwhile, Tokyo’s and Taipei’s initiatives demonstrate that when two are willing to hear the music, they can indeed tango.
As relevant parties search for a framework to manage South China Sea tensions, a consensus, binding definition of “self-restraint” faithful to the spirit of the 2002 DOC is the Holy Grail. The deck today seems stacked against it. Unconstructive activities driving changes to the status quo are unlikely to be reversed. Political will among relevant parties remains in doubt. Nevertheless, as observers naturally focus on tension and conflict, constructive alternatives must be proactively kept a part of the conversation.
That Japan’s decades-old policy of self-restraint is so often ignored is perhaps evidence that, at least until recently, it proved so effective.
Since the summit between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping last November, the ice between Tokyo and Beijing has begun to thaw. But crowded waters and airspace in the East China Sea still make the risk of miscalculation or low-level encounters escalating into a major crisis too great for comfort…
My latest… op-ed [in Japanese] on the urgent need for Japan and China to establish, and to reliably implement, bilateral crisis management in the East China Sea has been published in Japan’s Asahi […]
I published a brief opinion piece in The New York Times/International Herald Tribune on the significance of the end of Japan’s logistical support for Operation Enduring Freedom. Liff, Adam P. “Japan Pulls Out,” […]