Japan's defence upgrade should be applauded

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2007, 12:00am

Japan's upgrading today of its defence agency to a fully fledged ministry symbolically moves the nation another step away from the pacifism of its 1947 constitution towards the status of a normal military power. That a ministry of defence will be established in Tokyo six decades after the demise of the imperial Japanese army may seem threatening to Asian countries invaded last century.

While such concerns are understandable, those countries should accept that time has moved on and amid a new global security environment, Japan has a valuable role to play, as well as a right to defend its shores. Japan is, after all, a responsible member of the global community. As the world's second-biggest economy, it has lived up to the expectations created by being a generous donor to developing nations.

Amid the global thirst for stability, another dimension has emerged, one that the government is eager to embrace but has been forced to move slowly towards in light of the sensibilities of its neighbours: peacekeeping and reconstruction. Such operations require military expertise and Japan is one of the few nations able to provide the necessary expensive resources.

Tentative first steps were taken two years ago when soldiers were sent to tsunami-hit Indian Ocean nations to help victims and, later, when troops participated in reconstruction work in Iraq. Both times, because of Japan's pacifist laws, approval had to be gained from parliament so that the overseas military operations could take place.

Moving the defence agency out of the prime minister's office and elevating it to ministry status does not mean Japan will immediately be able to respond more quickly to international emergencies - that will require changes to the constitution. With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe making constitutional reform his top priority, though, the path is being cleared for such an eventuality. That will be welcome in a world which often struggles to find the manpower and equipment needed to deal with large-scale disasters.

But international assistance is only part of Japan's need to revamp its military system. Most pressing is the desire to counter the threat posed by North Korea. Pyongyang's firing of a ballistic missile over Japan in 1998 and its testing of a nuclear device three months ago has spurred the government to strengthen its defence capabilities.

The government's latest white paper on defence indicated that the transition of the defence agency to a ministry was aimed at enhancing and strengthening 'the response to emergency situations' and 'to be able to work proactively for the peace and stability of the international community on Japan's own initiatives'.

Such objectives are the right of any nation and Japan is going about achieving them in a sensitive manner. This is a welcome sign that should be applauded, not treated with suspicion.