- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Washington should be thoroughly pleased with the pledges from the newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to repeal the military restrictions of Article 9 of the U.S.-imposed constitution. Lacking a normal military force has hamstrung Japan’s diplomatic presence in Asia and has left Japanese foreign policy adrift. As Mr. Abe leads Japan from a peace state to a normal state, the United States should expect a close ally to start to reshape the security dynamic in Asia and to take a larger role in the war on terror.

Mr. Abe has been a strong proponent of allowing his nation’s self-defense force to participate in collective self-defense — a change which would permit Japan to participate in military operations with the United States. Mr. Abe’s predecessor, who also favored strong relations with the United States, had sent troops to Iraq in 2003. But they could only serve in a strictly noncombat role. Japan was also precluded from supplying troops for the coalition in the 1991 Gulf War, although it did furnish $13 billion, and was understandably displeased when Kuwait failed to thank it publicly for the effort.

Japan should couple its move away from constitutionally imposed military restrictions with strengthening, not estrangement, of relations with its Asian neighbors. Mr. Abe is a strong nationalist, but his first efforts at regional diplomacy have come within a week of assuming office. Because he must be conscientious of how China and South Korea — both countries with searing memories of Japanese imperialism during World War II — will respond to such a change, his government is working to arrange summits in Seoul and Beijing. Visiting these two other Asian powers before coming to Washington is not a slight to the United States, but rather a demonstration of Japan’s interests in improving regional relations that have faltered in recent years. Along with engaging India, freeing Japan from its military limitations will help to balance Chinese hegemony in Asia.

Even though he has strong popular support for his plan, revising the constitution will be a challenging political issue for Mr. Abe and may be the defining political battle of his tenure as prime minister. Mr. Abe has maintained his commitment to revise Article 9, but told lawmakers recently that “criticism that the purpose of our plan to revise the constitution is to become a country that wages war overseas is totally off the mark.” Statements such as this are important to reassure domestic as well as international critics that Japan’s transition will be from pacifism to military preparedness, not to military aggression.

The nationalism prevalent in Japan today is markedly different than the militarism of the early 20th century that lead Japan into World War II, but Mr. Abe will likely be required to make that distinction often.

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