- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

America’s attention is riveted on the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Winning the peace in Iraq and implementing the road map for a lasting settlement between Israel, the Arabs and Palestinians are more than full-time jobs. And whether or not to intervene to stop the bloodshed in Liberia is a further competitor for the Bush administration’s priorities. Meanwhile, potentially profound, but thus far relatively invisible, forces are at work in northeast Asia.

These latest forces are not yet directly linked with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and their impact on the region and beyond. Instead, the center for this possible geostrategic seismic shift is Tokyo. Last week, the Japanese Diet approved the deployment of Japanese Self-Defense Forces to Iraq for peacekeeping and other roles. This is indeed a significant and new milestone.

With the establishment of a democratic Japan after World War II and the 1960 bilateral defense treaty with the United States, Japanese soldiers were prepared to shed their blood in defense of the home islands, presumably in a war started by the Soviet Union or China. This vote now means that Japanese military units will be sent to harm’s way in Iraq. No matter how secure or stable the part of Iraq to which these forces will deploy, clearly there are risks.

What happens when or if the first Japanese soldier is killed or wounded in Iraq? For the first time since World War II, Japanese blood will be let not in direct defense of Japan but overseas. How might the Japanese react and what effect if any will this have for future Japanese strategy and its military forces? Will this phenomenon encourage Japanese rearmament perhaps, to the point of fielding a nuclear deterrent specifically to deal with North Korea and possibly as a message to China? Or will the deployment and the prospect of casualties cool any rush to a larger and more aggressive military capacity?

These questions cannot yet be answered with any hope of accuracy. Still, they cannot be ignored, especially when America’s focus is elsewhere. So,what should be done?

There are some in the United States and in the administration who argue for a greater Japanese defense capacity — even to include nuclear weapons. In their view, as a democracy, Japan can be trusted to use any military power with discretion. Hence, a Japanese nuclear deterrent would serve to counterbalance North Korea, providing a further strategic buffer for the United States. That reasoning parallels the role of British and French nuclear weapons in the Cold War.

Japan spends only a percent or so of GDP on defense. With the growing demands on U.S. forces around the world, as this argument goes, greater contributions and increases by allies would be strategically important to complement an already stretched U.S. military. And a few in Japan, notably the governor of Tokyo — Shintaro Ishihara, and co-author of “A Japan That Can Say No” who argued for a more independent Japan over a decade ago — agree with the sentiments if not the details of these arguments.

A rearmed and especially nuclear Japan almost certainly will provoke a huge negative reaction from China and Russia. North Korea would view this as a direct threat. And it is unclear whether the South would be comfortable surrounded as it were on all sides by nuclear states.

Thus, common sense must prevail. Historically, Japan has demonstrated an amazing capacity for transformation. After Commodore Perry’s “black ships” “opened” Japan in 1853, Japan began a rapid modernization. Fifty years later it defeated China in one war and was about to route the Russians in the short 1904-05 conflict. After attempting a distant form of democracy following World War I, Japan veered hard to the right. The result was the fascist regime that instigated another war against China that ultimately led to World War II and the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. Following its massive defeat in 1945 and the obliteration of many of its cities through fire- and atom-bombing, Japan quickly took the path of peace and non-aggression that has persisted for 60 years.

A few or even many Japanese casualties in Iraq do not a nuclear bomb make. The Japanese people are worldly enough to appreciate that international stability is no longer a free ride. Japan must do more. However, there are grounds for concern. The United States should encourage Japan to increase its participation in peacekeeping, nation-building and humanitarian tasks.

If history has merit, the suggestion of a major rearmament and the pursuit of nuclear weapons will be disastrous, not only for Japan but for the region.In that instance, Tokyo’s governor is right. Japan can and should say no.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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