Ongoing efforts to widen Tokyo's military role

THE warning by Japan's Defence Ministry in a White Paper of the "increasingly severe" security environment lends tacit support to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent bid to reinterpret the Constitution to allow the military to engage in collective self-defence.

In early July, Mr Abe used a Cabinet decision to reinterpret the Constitution, giving the Self-Defence Force (SDF) the right to go to the aid of friendly countries in a contingency.

In the White Paper released yesterday, the Defence Ministry also hailed the Cabinet decision as of "historic" significance in guaranteeing peace and security.

The paper comes as Mr Abe continues efforts to give more teeth to the SDF and rework Japan's post-war security framework to better deal with what the paper described as the "increasingly severe" security environment.

Defence officials pointed out that this year's 505-page White Paper has "major additions" in its 20-page section on China, given developments in the past year beginning with Beijing's unilateral declaration of an air defence identification zone.

The paper noted that the SDF scrambled jet fighters 810 times between April last year and March this year in response to Chinese and Russian military planes flying close to Japanese air space. Of the total, 415 or more than half were in response to Chinese planes.

Mr Abe, who prides himself on being a consummate diplomat and has visited 47 countries since coming to office, has yet to visit his closest neighbour and has not held a summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The stand-off is chiefly due to tensions arising from a territorial dispute and Mr Abe's visit to the Yasukuni war shrine, which China and other Asian countries regard as a monument to Japan's past military aggression.

But Professor Yoichiro Sato, director of international strategic studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, believes Mr Abe has done well in his Asian diplomacy as a whole. "Mr Abe has skilfully managed his Asia diplomacy, using his approaches to North Korea and Russia as leverages to counter China's collaboration with South Korea against Japan," he said.

In recent weeks, Japan has been working to reopen talks with North Korea on the issue of Japanese abductees. While working with the United States and Europe on the Ukraine crisis, Mr Abe is also maintaining his relationship of trust with President Vladimir Putin in the hope of resolving longstanding territorial feuds.

Chinese experts say the China-dedicated content in the annual White Paper has been increasing every year since Mr Abe took office in December 2012, accusing the Japanese leader of playing up the "China threat" to reduce domestic resistance to reinterpreting Japan's pacifist Constitution.

Renmin University foreign policy expert Jin Canrong said it was "not surprising" that China remains a key focus due to the historical issues and baggage plaguing the two Asian neighbours.

"China's unprecedented, rapid rise has caught many off guard. Of course some countries will be uncomfortable and use this as an excuse to portray China as a threat," he said.

But Mr Abe still faces some obstacles in his desire to give Japan a bigger military role. Regional security expert Takashi Inoguchi noted that some 10 laws have to be passed before Japan can engage in collective self-defence. "When Parliament meets in autumn to debate the legislation, there may be some moderation of Mr Abe's push for the military to play a bigger role," he said. A Kyodo News survey earlier this month showed that 60.2 per cent of Japanese oppose collective self-defence.

Additional reporting by Esther Teo in Beijing