My Take

Honesty is best policy for Japan's military

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 August, 2013, 3:08am

Japan's deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, has been forced to apologise for remarks he made before ultra-conservative groups about learning from the way Nazi Germany changed its constitution and built its armed forces.

Aso, who is also finance minister, has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth, such as musing publicly about wishing the country's elderly would "hurry up and die" to resolve the ageing- population problem.

But political gaffes are just impolite or embarrassing instances in which a public figure either tells the truth or speaks his or her mind too freely. There have always been complaints among Japan's conservative ruling elite that the country's pacifist constitution, imposed by the US after the second world war, prohibits a standing army.

In reality, Japan has little to learn from the Nazis. The constitutional ban has, in fact, given Japan a perfect cover in the past three decades to quietly build up one of the world's most advanced military forces without calling it that.

Called the Self-Defence Forces, it is technically part of the national police force. But according to Jane's Defence Weekly, the SDF is among the world's best-equipped military forces, with a US$60 billion budget last year. Its maritime force is larger than the British navy. Many military experts believe Japan has the sophisticated equipment in place to go nuclear; their disagreements are over whether that would take months or a year to do so.

So why is this open secret not more openly discussed and debated?

One reason is surely that Washington has been happy to turn a blind eye to its allies developing military capabilities even when it is illegal or in breach of international pacts such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Israel, for example, has long been one of the world's great nuclear powers without admitting to it. And so Japan's militarisation has gone under the radar. When Washington wants to support an ally, you can be sure its much ballyhooed "independent" mainstream news media will not be overly critical.

There is, in one sense, a real constitutional barrier that irks Japan's ruling elite and the Americans. America's renewed pivot to Asia to counter China will require Japan to take an overtly aggressive stance. At some point, Japan's military will have to come out - and come clean.