The isolationist policies of the Trump administration, as well as blowback from the errors and misfortunes of previous administrations, have led us to a moment in world history where American leadership abroad doesn’t seem to be enough to keep the peace. At the moment there are several ongoing conflicts that may spiral out of control into larger wars.
The United States has friends and treaties around the world that make the regional challenges that our partners face our concern. There’s the obvious flashpoint between Russia and Ukraine that threatens to expand. There are also smaller, simmering conflicts that might flare up, too. Southeast Asia is becoming another of these areas, as Japan’s recent announcement of a new national defense strategy, which the US has encouraged, has taken the arms race there to a new level.
For many years, a new arms race in that region was unthinkable. That’s because Japan is unique among the world’s nations because its constitution explicitly forbids conflict. Known as Article 9, the official English translation reads:
ARTICLE 9. (1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be sustained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
Article 9 was added to Japan’s post-war constitution and has since governed its actions in the national defense and foreign policy space. However, a “reinterpretation” of Article 9 in 2014 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has led to a slow but steady growth in Japan’s military over the last decade.
The most drastic change was announced recently when Japan stated that it would double its military spending over the next five years. Japan said it would also seek to purchase and develop missiles that can strike China and North Korea, giving the nation its strongest offensive presence for the first time since World War II.
Japan’s rearmament is just the latest troubling development in the region. Japan’s new national defense strategy will make Japan the third largest military spender in the world, behind only the United States and China – two countries that are openly competing for control and influence in eastern Asia. Add to that the growing nuclear arsenal of North Korea, and it looks like that part of the world is bristling with weapons.
Worst of all, no country in the region has forgotten the violent history of the 20th century. Japan invaded China during World War II and committed numerous atrocities and war crimes that China and Japan are still disputing. Japan also committed similar crimes during its colonization of the Korean Peninsula during the first half of the 20th century. Again, Japan refuses to acknowledge its crimes there as well. Given that history and the lack of contrition, North Korea and China are understandably nervous about a more assertive Japan in their neighborhood.
The question is, how will the rest of the region respond? Although the United States is allied with both Japan and South Korea by treaty, there is no formal, direct alliance between South Korea and Japan. South Korea has been more assertive in its own military posture, such as supplying weapons and troops to the United Arab Emirates. It doesn’t take a large leap of the imagination to see South Korea expanding its military further in response to its neighbors. China’s military expansion has already been well-documented. Japan has justified its military growth as a response to China’s increased moves in the region, but China can just as easily claim to be doing the same in a future response, which could lead to an even greater spiraling of military spending and weapons.
Not even a constitutional ban has the power to prevent an arms race from occurring between China, Japan, and possibly South Korea. The situation in Ukraine has shown the world that war can still happen at any time, even when the sides haven’t been preparing for years. By the time Japan finishes ramping up its military, any conflict that occurs will only be that much worse.