- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 17, 2006

When Shinzo Abe was elected Japanese prime minister in September, he made strengthening Japan’s military an important part of his agenda. On Friday, the upper house of the Japanese parliament passed a law that elevates the Defense Agency to the Ministry of Defense, giving defense officials a greater role in setting policy. More importantly, the legislation opens the door to a more significant role in international peacekeeping missions for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, which are restricted to only the function that their name implies. The law by itself does not change that nature of Japan’s military; but even though more legislation is required in order for Japan to send forces into regional or international conflicts, the law’s passage is an important step for Mr. Abe’s agenda.

Mr. Abe’s nationalism concerns some critics — pacifists in Japan in particular, but some observers in the United States as well. But it should not be confused with the kind of nationalism that was harnessed by World War II-era Japan. Revising Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which places restrictions on Japan’s military, is not a move toward militarism, but would simply allow Japan to be a “normal” nation.

The East Asia security dynamic is being shifted by two factors, and both are seen as threatening in Washington and Tokyo. The first is North Korea’s nuclear ambition, which the United States and Japan are committed to curtailing. The second is China’s increasingly evident intent to exert a stronger presence in the Pacific, which the Pentagon’s annual report to congress on the Chinese military notes with concern. As Friday’s vote shows, Japanese lawmakers clearly sense the threat from both. U.S. officials have encouraged Japan to shed its pacifism for some time, but the consensus that conditions now demand that Japan do so is growing.

Under Mr. Abe, a more values-based approach to foreign policy also appears to be gaining traction over the mercantilist approach. A joint statement signed by Mr. Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, and President Bush this summer highlights that approach: “The United States and Japan stand together not only against mutual threats but also for the advancement of universal values such as freedom, human dignity and human rights, democracy, market economy, and the rule of law.” On the one hand, this can be read as a reminder of the sharp difference between Japan and China — the latter having continually disappointed U.S. hopes that it would become a “responsible stakeholder” in world affairs. But the theme of advancing “universal values” has appeared repeatedly in Mr. Abe’s speeches, including as an underpinning of Japan’s strong relations with India. This suggests that the promotion of these values is moving toward the forefront of Japanese foreign policy, which would be another welcome development.

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