New Japan, new Asia

Japan is at a historic inflection point and this moment has huge implications both for its national identity and for security in the Asia-Pacific. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has succeeded in passing controversial laws that expand the operational scope and strategic orientation of the Self-Defence Forces (SDF), shaking up the post-World War II status quo of Japan having a passive and geographically constrained military.

For a nation famed for sobriety and orderliness, chaotic scenes of legislators physically brawling on the floor of the National Diet and tens of thousands of citizens rallying raucously outside the legislature speak of the critical shift that is under way. Contestation, which is almost anathema to the Japanese personality, has surged in recognition that something major is afoot to change the country's self-definition and remake what it means to be Japanese.

Mr Abe is steering Japan from the American-imposed pacifist Constitution's mandate of individual self-defence and limited armament to a doctrine of "collective self-defence" that would allow the military to engage in combat operations overseas. He represents a tradition of Japanese radical conservatism that chafes at the shackles imposed on the nation's capabilities and power by the United States since 1945. The new security laws are, in his view, about breaking free and regaining Japan's independence to become a "normal" nation with autonomy and choice over how it wants to project power in the world.

Japan's right wing believes Washington has kept Tokyo subservient for decades to American interests and that the entire post-war order was forcibly imposed on Japan after it was pulverised by atomic bombing. The "MacArthur Constitution" (drafted by the occupying American military with little Japanese consultation) repressed Japan's military and forged a post-war regime that conservatives such as Mr Abe resent as an ideological import thrust upon Japan.

Inspired by the example of his own grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who as prime minister attempted to assert Japan's independence from the US in 1960, Mr Abe is driven by a vision to recalibrate the asymmetric US-Japan equation in more equal terms by beefing up the Japanese military and letting it be a player in its own right.

The historical anti-Americanism of Japanese conservatives is buttressed by contemporary doubts about the US' ability to protect Japan, owing to relative American decline and China's ascendance.

In the heated debates prior to passage of the security laws, the Abe camp stressed "changes in the security environment surrounding our nation" and explicitly stated that "the era in which America could be called the world's policeman is coming to an end".

When Russia ran roughshod over Ukraine last year and the US looked on helplessly, it resonated in Japan's rightist circles as a vindication of their view that Washington cannot be relied upon to halt Chinese expansionism in Asia, and hence Japan must rebuild its own sinews and carve out an extroverted grand strategy.

Mr Abe is motivated by fear of China's vast and fast-modernising military and disappointed that US President Barack Obama's "pivot/rebalancing to Asia" is not actually being implemented to deter China. While not repudiating the age-old alliance with the US, Mr Abe realises that he must find non-US-based pillars and partnerships for Japanese security.

The security Bills he has passed in the Diet by swimming against the tide of public opinion and opposition parties are first steps in diversifying the basis for Japan's regional security beyond the US protective umbrella.

Domestic critics have panned Mr Abe's legislation as "war Bills" that would entangle the SDF in "illegal American wars" in the Middle East. Other Japanese opponents have attacked Mr Abe for turning their country into a "deputy sheriff" of the US with enhanced military powers but still serving Washington's purposes in Asia. China, which is the elephant in the room as Japan rearms, believes Tokyo is being deliberately encouraged by the US to go on the offensive in order to contain Beijing.

But there is more to the new Japan under Mr Abe than the US dimension.

Countries in the Asia-Pacific which share Mr Abe's alarm about Chinese military muscle are not at all displeased to see the "normalisation" of Japan. When Mr Abe says he would authorise the SDF to support the foreign forces of friendly nations engaged in combat in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean, it transcends the US and refers to countries like India which want a more active and collaborative Japan.

Smaller nations and territories in East Asia also welcome a proactive Japan so that they can manage growing Chinese assertiveness. Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia and even Taiwan have indicated that Mr Abe's military rejuvenation could make them feel safer.

In the light of the deep anti-Americanism of Japan's conservatives and these wider regional perspectives, it is fair to conclude that Mr Abe's bid to render Japan a true great power with a giant economy and a capable military is not an unmitigated negative development. It does entail risks, but they are outweighed by the benefits of improved balance of power and assurance for regional actors in Asia who squirm not at Japanese militarism of the past but at Chinese militarism of the present and future.

• The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2015, with the headline 'New Japan, new Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe