Why India needs to reformulate its China policy

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, April 14, 2015

Xi Jinping in AhmedabadThe hype over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s China visit next month is likely to obscure the underlying strategic dissonance and tensions between the world’s two most populous countries on issues extending from land and water to geopolitical aims.

Two issues stand out: An increasingly asymmetrical trade relationship and a gradually rising pattern of Chinese border incursions in several regions since 2006, when China for the first time claimed Arunachal Pradesh as ‘South Tibet’.

India-China commerce constitutes one of the world’s most lopsided trade relationships: China’s exports are 3½ times greater in value than its imports, and it buys mainly primary commodities from India but exports value-added goods to it. For example, China’s steel producers find India an easy dumping prey, with Chinese dumping of steel items rising almost fourfold under Modi’s watch in 2014. New Delhi, by tamely allowing China to rake in growing profits through such trade, in effect funds the Chinese strategy to encircle India.

Despite rising border provocations, Indian policymakers have still to get their act together. To Modi’s credit, he has stressed that border peace and tranquillity is a prerequisite to the continued growth of India-China relations. But with his government, like his predecessor’s, preoccupied with fire-fighting on several fronts, policymakers are missing the significance of what China is up to.

There is a clear pattern, backed by an identifiable strategy, to the Chinese incursions. With the aid of progressively increasing or recurrent incursions in each coveted area, the strategy aims to create a dispute where no dispute has existed so that China can subsequently demand that it be settled ‘peacefully’ on give-and-take terms. This pattern and strategy are apparent, for example, from repeated Chinese intrusions in Ladakh’s two strategic regions — Depsang and Chumar — where the geography favours Indian forces, lending a distinct military advantage.

Neither Chumar nor Depsang was in dispute earlier. Yet Chinese President Xi Jinping’s India arrival last September coincided with a Chinese intrusion into Chumar — one of the biggest incursions ever, representing Xi’s birthday gift for Modi, who turned 64 on that day. And Premier Li Keqiang’s 2013 visit followed a Chinese encroachment into Depsang, with the intruding troops setting up camp in an area that extended beyond the ‘line of actual control’ (LAC) that China itself unilaterally drew when it defeated India in the 1962 Chinese-initiated war.

The tense, intrusion-triggered military standoffs notwithstanding, incursions remain business as usual for China. For example, on the eve of the recent border talks, and then soon thereafter, intruding Chinese forces had face-offs with Indian troops in two separate areas of the Depsang plateau. In both the cases on March 20 and March 28, the Chinese attempt to reach India’s Old Patrol Point base was foiled. In response to an incursion, Indian forces hold a banner drill to get the intruding troops out — a task that might also necessitate one or more flag meetings. But no sooner has one face-off ended than another incursion occurs. After all, Chinese border ‘transgressions’, as government figures reveal, now exceed more than one per day.

One novel method the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has employed is to bring ethnic Han pastoralists to the valleys along the LAC and give them cover to range across it, thus driving Indian herdsmen from their traditional pasturelands. In the absence of a strategy to thwart such PLA-assisted ‘civilian’ encroachments (one of which occurred during Xi’s visit), India has been incrementally losing land, especially in Arunachal and Ladakh.

Why blame China for employing means — fair or foul — to alter the LAC bit by bit when Indians remain confused as ever on how to respond? To thwart encroachment by regular PLA troops, India’s first line of defence remains a thinly stretched police force. The home ministry-administered Indo-Tibetan Border Police is no match for the PLA guile and capability. Beefing up its strength alone won’t suffice; it must be placed under the army’s operational command.

The focus on high-level visits and the border talks proceeding for 34 years — a world record — distracts attention from India’s strategic imperatives while emboldening China to furtively nibble at Indian territories.

The Modi government’s recently concluded maiden border talks with China dashed hopes of these negotiations being reoriented to produce results. The two countries in September recommitted to ‘an early settlement of the boundary question’, with Modi urging Xi to “resume the stalled process of clarifying the LAC” — a process derailed by China’s breaking of a 2001 promise to exchange maps with India. The recent discussions, however, represented no earnest effort to restructure the talks, under way since 1981.

India’s choice is not between persisting with a weak-kneed policy and risking a war. India has a hundred different options between these extremities, as China’s own actions attest. Yet national security adviser Ajit Doval said after the latest round that holding border negotiations was itself valuable, even if the talks yielded no progress, because their absence would mean “conflict is the only means of resolution”. Such logic that the sole choice for India is between staying stuck in futile talks and entering into conflict only encourages a revanchist China to take India round and round the mulberry bush.

India must stop seeing options only at the extreme ends and build a credible counter-strategy. China indeed is trying to limit India’s options by leveraging its economic clout, including as a major supplier of power and telecom equipment and active pharmaceutical ingredients and as a lender to financially troubled Indian firms. China is already India’s largest source of imports.

With creative gradualism his forte, Modi must evolve a China policy that errs on the side of caution, not meekness. Caution averts problems but timidity, as the past decade has shown, invites more problems. Prudence demands denying China the leeway to continue distorting commerce and boosting its trade surplus year after year, even as it keeps India under mounting strategic pressure without incurring political costs.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) The Hindustan Times, 2015.

History holds Asia hostage

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Nikkie Asian Review, April 6-12, 2015

A failure to come to terms with history weighs on all the important bilateral relationships in Asia. As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, some nations in the region are resurrecting the ghosts of history.

China, for example, is planning a grand military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3 to commemorate what it calls Victory over Japan Day. In announcing the parade, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, said it will display China’s military prowess and “make Japan tremble.” An increasingly muscular China, however, is rattling not only Japan but also its other neighbors.

How diplomatic relationships are held hostage to history is best exemplified by the strained ties between America’s closest regional allies — South Korea and Japan. Following Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s re-election, these two countries were presented with a stark choice: find ways to stem the recrudescence of bitter disputes over history or stay frozen in a political relationship that plays into China’s hands.

Playing the history card, China has made ultranationalism the legitimating credo of Communist rule. In recent years, China has sought to draw attention to the atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II by expanding and renovating war museums memorializing the 1931-1945 invasion, as well as through other government projects and subsidies. As though to stir its people into a frenzy of patriotism, China has also declared two new national days to remember Japanese aggression.

But what if the victims of China’s aggression followed its example and commemorated Chinese attacks on them? China, while seeking to obscure its own aggressions and occupations since the communist “revolution,” including the 1951 annexation of the sprawling Tibetan plateau and invasions of India and Vietnam in 1962 and 1979, respectively, has long called on Japan to take history as a mirror and demonstrate greater remorse for its past aggressions.

When nationalisms collide

History is rarely an objective chronicle, in keeping with the dictum that it is written by the winners. Yet history greatly shapes national narratives. In Asia, the “history problem” has spurred a resurgence of competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms. Squabbles over history and remembrance remain the principal obstacle to political reconciliation in Asia, reinforcing negative stereotypes of rival nations and helping to rationalize claims to territories long held by other nations. A country’s commemoration is usually linked with its national identity.

Honoring one country’s heroes and history can be done without seeking to alienate, provoke or rub salt in the wounds of another nation. In an economically integrated but politically divided Asia, however, relations between nations remain trapped in a mutually reinforcing loop: Poor political relations help magnify and accentuate the history problem, thus chaining diplomatic ties to history.

Breaking out of this vicious cycle demands forward-looking leadership and the will to pursue political reconciliation. At present, though, the trend is in the opposite direction. For example, attempts in East Asia to rewrite or sugarcoat history, including by revising textbooks or erecting memorials to newfound heroes, are inciting greater regional rancor and recrimination. A potent mix of domestic politics, growing geopolitical competition and military tensions has turned history into a driver of corrosive nationalism.

Disputes between South Korea and Japan and between China and Japan over territories, war memorials, textbooks and natural resources are the result of an entangled history. The Sino-Indian relationship is also a prisoner of the past. This is especially evident in the context of China’s elimination of the historical buffer — Tibet — and its subsequent war with India. Even the Chinese-South Korean relationship carries the baggage of history, burdened  by China’s more recent revisionist claim to the kingdom of Koguryo, one of the three kingdoms in ancient Korea.

Missed opportunity

The recent commitment of U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to work with like-minded states to establish a power equilibrium and a rule-based order in Asia can make little headway if history continues to hinder relations even between democracies. Take Japan and South Korea: As export-oriented powerhouses with traditionally close cultural ties, the two share many values. But resurgent history issues between them have dimmed hopes of a concert of democracies to rein in China’s assertiveness.

The century-old case of Korean activist Ahn Jung-geun illustrates history’s divisive hold. Considered a terrorist in  Japan, where he was hanged, but a hero in South Korea, Ahn assassinated four-time Japanese Prime Minister and the first Resident-General of Korea Hirobumi Ito in 1909 at the Harbin railway station in China.

The case resurfaced after China opened a memorial hall in Harbin in January 2014 commemorating Ahn, prompting Japan to denounce China for glorifying a terrorist. The hall was built at the suggestion of South Korean President Park Geun-hye during a meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping in the summer of 2013.

South Korea, a hyper-nationalistic state, has sought to eliminate all signs of Japanese colonial rule. But not all Asian states seek to obliterate their colonial past. India continues to transact much of its key government business from British-era edifices, and some  of its major criminal and civil laws date from the colonial period. Taiwan — a former Japanese colony — also has a tolerant view of its period of subjugation.

Many nations, however, blend historical fact with myth. For example, China, as the fairy-tale Middle Kingdom, claims to be the mother of all civilizations, weaving legend with history to foster a chauvinistic Han culture centered on regaining lost glory. The Communist Party projects great-power status as China’s historical entitlement. Indeed, by embellishing China’s past, it wants to make real the legend that drives Chinese revisionist history — China’s centrality in the world. This is reflected in President Xi’s goal to build what he calls the “Chinese dream.”

Stirring up the past

Harmful historical legacies create serious impediments to rational policy choices. Park, for example, has sought closer ties with China even though South Korea’s natural regional partner is Japan. Japan — Asia’s oldest liberal democracy, which has not fired a single shot against an outside party since World War II — has been a major donor of economic and humanitarian aid.

Since coming to power more than two years ago, Park — the daughter of the military general who served as South Korea’s dictator for 18 years until 1979 — has not held a single one-on-one meeting with Abe, insisting that Japan first address lingering issues over its annexation of Korea more than 100 years ago. Japan declared Korea a protectorate in 1905, and officially annexed it in 1910.

Abe’s re-election places him on strong political ground to reach out to Park and find ways to put history behind them through negotiation. But this will be a challenging task for two reasons. First, South Korea clings to the past while Japan, which has acknowledged and apologized several times for its war crimes, wishes to forget the past. In the last century, Japan was a victor and a loser, as well as an oppressor and a victim, making its historical narrative complex and difficult, especially in relation to China and South Korea.

Second, Park has persisted in raking up the past even at the expense of the bilateral relationship. She has sought to pander to nationalist sentiment at home by being tough on Japan, clearly in part to play down her father’s collaboration with the Japanese Imperial Army. For example, Park recently again called on Japan to acknowledge the historical truth by resolving the “comfort women” issue, a reference to the sexual slavery of Korean and other women by the Japanese Imperial Army.

A grand bargain between the two East Asian neighbors would require Japan to more clearly and fully express regret and remorse over its militaristic past and South Korea to agree not to keep dredging up historical grievances.

If South Korea and Japan take the lead to put their shared past behind them, they could set an example for other relationships in Asia that are burdened by historical differences and distortions.

Asian states cannot change the past, but they can strive to shape a more cooperative future. As a Russian proverb puts it pithily, “Forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes.”

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of the award-winning book Water: Asia’s New Battleground, Georgetown University Press.

Great powers surf to conquer

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, March 12, 2015

indian-ocean-bases-180c4Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-nation Indian Ocean tour attests to this region’s critical importance for Indian security, including preventing India’s encirclement by hostile powers. If China were to gain the upper hand in the Indian Ocean region, it will mark the end of India’s great-power ambitions. India thereafter will be seen as merely a sub-regional power whose clout does not extend across South Asia, with Pakistan challenging it in the west and China in the north and south.

India’s tactical and strategic disadvantages along its land frontiers are more than compensated by its immense geographic advantage in the Indian Ocean. Such is peninsular India’s vantage location in the Indian Ocean — the world’s premier energy and trade seaway — that the country is positioned dominantly astride vital sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), including China’s emergent Maritime Silk Road.

Despite India’s inherent maritime leverage, its land-frontier compulsions have instilled a landlocked mindset. With its attention fixated on the disputed land borders, India — far from exploiting its advantage on the maritime front — often has difficulty facing up to the fact that it is a major maritime country. Worse still, India diplomatically neglected the Indian Ocean region in the 25-year period from 1989 when it was governed by coalitions. Tellingly, Modi is the first prime minister to visit Seychelles in 34 years and Sri Lanka in 28 years.

India’s long neglect has become China’s strategic gain. China’s quiet manoeuvring in the Indian Ocean, where it is chipping away at India’s natural-geographic advantage through multibillion-dollar projects along the great trade arteries, draws strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the South and East China Seas.

The Indian Ocean promises to shape the wider geopolitics and balance of power in Asia and beyond. India, however, finds itself on the back foot in its own strategic backyard. According to Jawaharlal Nehru, “History has shown that whatever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s sea-borne trade at her mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence itself.” The irony is that this is the only ocean in the world named after a single country.

China has been assiduously pursuing a strategy to build a “string of pearls” across the Indian Ocean so as to gain strategic clout and naval access. By rebranding the “string of pearls” strategy as a “21st-century maritime silk road” project, China has now sought to disguise its real intentions. This signature initiative of President Xi Jinping merely recasts the “string of pearls” strategy in meretriciously benign terms. Stripped of its rhetoric, the Silk Road — just like the “string of pearls” — is designed to redraw Asia’s geopolitical map by making China the preeminent power.

The Silk Road indeed exemplifies China’s use of aid, investment and other leverage to pull littoral states closer to its orbit, including through the construction of seaports, railroads and highways. Such construction may provide a counterpoint to China’s military assertiveness. Yet it is integral to a strategy that fuses soft and hard tactics to bind countries to China’s economy and security and to convince them that it is in their interest to accept China as Asia’s alpha power.

How China blends its economic and military interests was illustrated last autumn by the separate docking of two Chinese submarines at the newly opened, Chinese-majority-owned container terminal at Colombo Harbour. China’s desire for permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean, where it has carried out three deployments, is being whetted by its control of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, located strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. China has operationally taken over the port it built at Gwadar to develop not its commercial value (which remains unpromising) but its potential as a key naval outpost.

Given the emerging challenge to India in its maritime backyard, Modi must develop a credible strategy to counter it. His charm-offensive tour of regional states with offers of new economic and defence tie-ups marks just a beginning. Modi did well to drop the Maldives from his itinerary, given the political mess there. But he could have delayed his Sri Lanka trip until after the forthcoming parliamentary elections there, especially given the fact that his visit comes barely a month after President Maithripala Sirisena’s India tour.

In keeping with his highly personalized imprint on diplomacy, Modi thus far has relied on bilateral summits to open new avenues for cooperation and collaboration. Diplomacy alone will not suffice. Sirisena, for example, makes his first official visits to Beijing and Islamabad soon after hosting Modi.

To prevent Chinese military encirclement, India needs to significantly accelerate naval modernization. It must build sufficient naval prowess to potentially interdict Chinese SLOCs in the Indian Ocean and hold the Chinese economy hostage if a Himalayan war were thrust upon it again. A major holdback of tanker traffic in wartime would be a crippling jolt to the Chinese economy, though it might not alter the war’s outcome.

Even as the Chinese military keeps Indian ground forces busy in peacetime by staging Himalayan border incursions and other flare-ups, the oil and liquefied gas flowing from the Gulf and Africa to China pass through the Indian Ocean unmolested and unimpeded. Over 80% of China’s oil imports pass through the Malacca Strait chokepoint. Boosting SLOC interdiction capability would allow the Indian Navy to dominate key maritime routes and help improve the Chinese military’s behaviour along the Himalayas.

The contest for major influence in the Indian Ocean is pivotal to the success of China’s strategy to fashion a Sino-centric Asia. This is a contest India cannot afford to lose.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2015.

A Silk Glove for China’s Iron Fist

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Iron fist

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

For years, China has sought to encircle South Asia with a “string of pearls”: a network of ports connecting its eastern coast to the Middle East that would boost its strategic clout and maritime access. Not surprisingly, India and others have regarded this process with serious concern.

Now, however, China is attempting to disguise its strategy, claiming that it wants to create a twenty-first-century maritime Silk Road to improve trade and cultural exchange. But friendly rhetoric can scarcely allay concern in Asia and beyond that China’s strategic goal is to dominate the region.

That concern is well founded. Simply put, the Silk Road initiative is designed to make China the hub of a new order in Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Indeed, by working to establish its dominance along major trade arteries, while instigating territorial and maritime disputes with several neighbors, China is attempting to redraw Asia’s geopolitical map.

The strategic dimension of the maritime Silk Road is underscored by the fact that the People’s Liberation Army has led the debate on the subject. The PLA National Defense University’s Major General Ji Mingkui argues that the initiative can help China to craft a “new image” and “win influence,” especially as the US “pivot” to Asia “loses momentum.”

Yet PLA experts remain eager to disavow the Silk Road initiative’s link with the “string of pearls.” Instead, they compare it to the fifteenth-century expeditions of Zheng He, a Chinese eunuch admiral who led a fleet of treasure ships to Africa. According to Central Military Commission member Sun Sijing, Zheng used the ancient Silk Road without seizing “one inch of land” or seeking “maritime hegemony” (though history attests to his use of military force – for example, executing local rulers – to control maritime chokepoints).

In reality, little distinguishes the maritime Silk Road from the “string of pearls.” Though China is employing ostensibly peaceful tactics to advance the initiative, its primary goal is not mutually beneficial cooperation; it is strategic supremacy. Indeed, the Silk Road is integral to President Xi Jinping’s “China dream” ambitions, which entail restoring China’s past glory and status.

China, especially under Xi, has often used aid, investment, and other economic leverage to compel its neighbors to deepen their economic dependence on – and expand their security cooperation with – the People’s Republic. Xi’s use of a $40 billion Silk Road Fund and the new China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to develop the maritime Silk Road reflects this approach.

Already, China is constructing ports, railroads, highways, and pipelines in the region’s littoral states, not only to facilitate mineral-resource imports and exports of Chinese manufactured goods, but also to advance its strategic military goals. For example, China concluded a multi-billion dollar deal with Pakistan to develop the port at Gwadar, owing to its strategic location at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, which more than offsets the port’s limited commercial potential.

Twice last autumn, Chinese attack submarines docked at Sri Lanka’s newly opened, $500 million container terminal at Colombo Harbor – built and majority-owned by Chinese state companies. China has now embarked on a $1.4-billion project to build a sprawling complex roughly the size of Monaco on reclaimed land in Colombo – a “port city” that will become a major stop on China’s nautical “road.”

Zhou Bo, an honorary fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science, admits that China’s mega-projects “will fundamentally change the political and economic landscape of the Indian Ocean,” while presenting China as a “strong yet benign” power. This is important, because the new Asian order will be determined less by developments in East Asia, where Japan is determined to block China’s rise, than by events in the Indian Ocean, where China is chipping away at India’s longstanding dominance.

India is certainly suspicious of China’s behavior. But China is treading carefully enough that it can continue to advance its goals, without spooking its intended quarry. The American academic John Garver depicted it best using a Chinese fable: “A frog in a pot of lukewarm water feels quite comfortable and safe. He does not notice as the water temperature slowly rises until, at last, the frog dies and is thoroughly cooked.”

Seen in this light, it is not surprising that China has invited India to join the maritime Silk Road initiative. The aim is not only to help calm a suspicious neighbor, but also to slow the development of India’s strategic ties with the US and Japan.

China’s plans for the Silk Road combine economic, diplomatic, energy, and security objectives in an effort to create an expansive network of linked facilities to boost trade, aid strategic penetration, and permit an increasingly potent and active submarine force to play an expanded role. In the process, China aims to fashion an Asian order based not on a balance of power with the US, but on its own hegemony. Only a concert of democracies can block this strategy.

Japan’s constitutional millstone

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY

The Japan Times, February 21, 2015

By underscoring Japan’s powerlessness to act or retaliate, the Islamic State group’s separate beheading of two Japanese hostages recently has brought Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cherished goal of reforming the U.S.-drafted Constitution back into national focus. No other country in the world is bound by the kind of constitutional restrictions that were imposed on vanquished Japan by occupying American forces in 1947.

The Constitution prohibits Japan from acquiring the means of war and bars its purely defensive military, called the Self-Defense Forces, from staging rescue missions or other overseas operations to free Japanese hostages. Indeed, to set up wholly defensive armed forces in the 1950s, Japan had to loosely interpret the Constitution’s force-renouncing Article 9, which says “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Yet Japan has clung to that Constitution for 68 years without so much as carrying out a single amendment or changing even one word. Many other democracies regard their constitutions not as cast in stone but as open to change so that they stay abreast with new social, technological and economic developments. For example, India — whose constitution is almost as old as Japan’s — has incorporated 99 amendments thus far. There have been fewer amendments — 27 — to the U.S. Constitution since its enactment in 1787.

AbeNo constitution can be perfect. A constitution, like the democratic system it embodies, should be open to improvements. In this light, Abe has made an impassioned appeal for constitutional reform, suggesting that the time may have come to emulate the same kind of far-reaching change that allowed Japan to rise from the ashes of its World War II defeat. Addressing the Diet, he asked: “For the future of Japan, shouldn’t we accomplish in this Diet the biggest reform since the end of the war?”

Abe’s contention that the Constitution no longer reflects the realities now facing Japan and thus needs to be updated is strengthened by another fact: Germany, also defeated in World War II, has made 59 amendments to its Basic Law, or constitution, which it adopted when it was under Allied occupation.

Japan and Germany regained sovereignty from military occupation only after embracing constitutional guarantees against any future threats from them to peace. West Germany’s new constitution, while outlawing a war of aggression, authorized military force in self-defense or as part of a collective security agreement. However, Japan’s Article 9 went further, stating that “the Japanese people forever renounce … the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” By forcing Japan to renounce war as “a sovereign right of the nation,” the Constitution imposed stringent restraints.

The constitutional fetters were a punishment for the policies of Japan’s wartime government and designed to forestall Japan from ever again engaging in militarist expansion. Although the Constitution was readily embraced by a war-weary Japanese public and continues to enjoy popular support today, it will be unrealistic to expect its exceptional restraints to last forever.

Abe indeed has seized on the terrorist beheadings to refocus on constitutional revision, signaling that he would push in that direction after elections to the Diet’s upper house, scheduled for the summer of 2016.

Cementing his grip on power after his party’s victory in a snap national election in December, Abe wants to reshape Japan by helping it to break free from the fetters of the past and by making it more competitive. He has tied his constitutional-reform agenda to Japan’s “normalization” as a nation at a time when the ascent of an increasingly muscular China has exacerbated the regional security environment, posing a direct challenge for Tokyo.

Abe has already reinterpreted the Constitution on “collective self-defense,” a step that would allow Japan to come to the aid of its allies. The move has been criticized by some in Japan as well as by Beijing, which frets about potential recrudescence of militarism in Japan, although it is China’s own military buildup and pressure on Tokyo that is prompting the Japanese government to reappraise national defense.

The United Nations charter recognizes individual and collective self-defense as an “inherent right” of nations. The Abe Cabinet’s U.S.-supported constitutional reinterpretation of the “collective self-defense” issue last July actually amounts to little more than a tweak — permitting Japanese forces, for example, to shield an American warship defending Japan but without arming Tokyo with the right to initiate offensive attacks or participate in multilateral military operations. Legislation to put this reinterpretation into practice is to be submitted in the current Diet session, which will last up to June.

Abe’s larger constitutional reform push, however, faces major obstacles at home. For one, the Constitution places a high bar to the enactment of any amendment, making it among the hardest in the world to revise. Any amendment must win support of two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Diet and be ratified by more than half of voters in a public referendum. For another, the majority of citizens, including most of the young, remain comfortable with the present Constitution. After all, pacifism remains deeply ingrained in Japanese society, in part because of the painful legacy of Japan’s prewar militarism.

Indeed, a poll by the World Values Survey last year revealed that Japanese rank the lowest in their “willingness to fight for the country,” with only 15.3 percent of Japanese — and just 9.5 percent of Japanese under 30 — expressing readiness to defend their nation, compared with 74.2 percent of Chinese and 57.7 percent of American.

In an extension of this attitude, many Japanese regard the Constitution as sacrosanct and unchangeable. Such constitutional sanctity zeal in Japan is virtually akin to the religious fundamentalism sweeping elsewhere in the world. To regard every word or provision in the Constitution as sacred is like defending the literal truth of a religious scripture.

Given such entrenched attitudes, the Abe government took recourse to reinterpreting Article 9 on the collective self-defense issue. However, any actual amendment of Article 9 does not seem feasible at present, especially as long as the small Komeito party remains part of the ruling coalition.

In fact, such are the current obstacles to constitutional revision that what Abe can hope for in his term is effecting, at best, a relaxation of amendment procedures, leaving Article 9′s modification to a successor government. Yet accomplishing even that limited goal remains uncertain. Given the strongly pacifist sentiment in society and the power of constitutional fundamentalists, it is an open question whether any proposed amendment of Article 96 to lower the revision bar — even if it were to clear both houses of the Diet with two-thirds majority — would win public support in a referendum.

If there is one factor that can make a meaningful difference, it is American support. Abe must lobby President Barack Obama’s administration to lend support to his constitutional reform agenda. U.S. support for constitutional revision will not only blunt Chinese criticism but also assuage many Japanese that amending the Constitution will not mean repudiating the postwar order that America established in Japan or abandoning pacifism.

Japan is the only power that can block China from gaining ascendancy in the region. America’s Japan policy, however, remains more geared to keeping that country as a U.S. protectorate than allowing it to directly aid the central U.S. policy objective in the Asia-Pacific — a stable balance of power.

U.S. security interests would be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional security. In the way America backed Abe’s reinterpretation of the collective self-defense right, it ought to support constitutional reform in Asia’s oldest liberal democracy that has an enviable record: Japan has not fired a single shot against an outside party since World War II and has been a major donor of economic and humanitarian aid and promoter of global peace.

Meanwhile, Japanese must engage in an open and free debate on their Constitution. Such a debate should focus on what provisions in the Constitution need to be updated, improved, upgraded or expanded given new security, economic, social and political realities. Only such a debate can set the stage for reform that helps Japan to free itself from its constitutional millstone.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2015.

Japan’s Constitutional Albatross

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

downloadThe approach of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II has sparked much discussion – and lamentation – of East Asia’s resurgent historical feuds. But recent tensions in the region may partly reflect a lack of progress in another, overlooked area: Japanese constitutional reform. Indeed, despite the powerlessness so vividly highlighted by the Islamic State’s beheading of two Japanese hostages, Japan has not adopted even one amendment to the “peace constitution” that the occupying American forces imposed on it in 1947.

At first glance, this may not be altogether surprising. After all, the constitution served an important purpose: by guaranteeing that Japan would not pose a military threat in the future, it enabled the country finally to escape foreign occupation and pursue rebuilding and democratization. But consider this: Germany adopted an Allied-approved constitution under similar circumstances in 1949, to which it has since made dozens of amendments.

Moreover, whereas Germany’s constitution, or Basic Law, authorized the use of military force in self-defense or as part of a collective security agreement, Japan’s constitution stipulated full and permanent relinquishment of “the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Japan is the only country in the world bound by such restrictions – imposed not just to prevent a militarist revival, but also to punish Japan for its wartime government’s policies – and continued adherence to them is unrealistic.

That is why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made constitutional reform a high priority. Having cemented his authority in December’s snap general election, in which his Liberal Democratic Party won a decisive victory, Abe is determined to pursue his goal of building a stronger, more competitive Japan – one that can hold its own against an increasingly muscular China.

Abe’s effort to “normalize” Japan’s strategic posture began with a reinterpretation of Article 9 of the constitution, according to which the country would henceforth be allowed to engage in “collective self-defense.” Japan’s government approved the change last summer, and the United States backed the move as well. With the Islamic State’s attempts to leverage the lives of two Japanese hostages, legislation to implement the reinterpretation is set to be submitted to the Diet.

Yet the reinterpretation has faced some resistance at home and abroad. Chinese critics, in particular, have expressed concern that Japanese militarism could reemerge, though they neglect to mention that it is China’s military buildup that prompted Japan’s government to reassess its national defense policy.

In fact, the reinterpretation amounts to little more than a tweak: Japanese forces can now shield an American warship defending Japan, but they remain prohibited from initiating offensive attacks or participating in multilateral military operations. Given that the United Nations charter recognizes individual and collective self-defense as an “inherent right” of sovereign countries, the change should be uncontroversial.

But significant obstacles continue to block wider constitutional reform. Amendments require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet, and a majority in a popular referendum, making Japan’s constitution one of the world’s most difficult to revise. To facilitate his ambitions, Abe hopes to scale down the requirement to simple majorities in both chambers or eliminate the need for a public referendum.

Given popular resistance to change, Abe’s task will not be easy. Whereas citizens of most democracies regard their constitutions as works in progress – India, for example, has amended its constitution 99 times since 1950 – the Japanese largely treat their constitution as sacrosanct. As a result, rather than ensuring that their constitution reflects social, technological, economic, and even ideological developments, they zealously uphold its precise provisions, like religious fundamentalists defending the literal truth of scripture.

Moreover, pacifism is deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche, even among young people, largely owing to the painful legacy of Japan’s prewar militarism. Indeed, a poll conducted by the World Values Survey last year revealed that only 15.3% of Japanese – compared with 74.2% of Chinese and 57.7% of Americans – would be prepared to defend their country, the lowest rate in the world. Just 9.5% of Japanese under the age of 30 said that they would be willing to fight.

Given such opposition, an actual revision of Article 9, rather than just a reinterpretation, does not seem feasible, especially while the avowedly pacifist Komeito party remains part of the ruling coalition. Even if Abe manages to relax the amendment requirements – no easy feat, given the likelihood that a popular referendum would reveal weak public support – he will probably have to leave the change to his successor.

But one factor could bolster Abe’s cause considerably. Explicit US support for Japanese constitutional reform might not only blunt Chinese criticism, but could also reassure many Japanese that updating Article 9 would not amount to rejecting the postwar order that the Americans helped to establish in Japan.

Such a move would also serve US security interests. A more confident and secure Japan would be better able to block China from gaining ascendancy in the western Pacific, thereby advancing the central US policy objective of ensuring a stable balance of power in Asia. No other country in the region could act as a credible counterweight to China.

Today’s Japan – a liberal democracy that has not fired a single shot against an outside party in nearly seven decades, and that has made major contributions to global development during this period – is very different from the Japan of 1947. Its constitution should reflect that.

© Project Syndicate, 2015.

East Asia’s Historical Shackles

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

flagsTOKYO – Diplomatic relationships in East Asia have long been held hostage by history. But the region’s “history problem” has been intensifying lately, with growing nationalism among major actors like China, Japan, and South Korea fueling disputes over everything from territory and natural resources to war memorials and textbooks. Can East Asian countries overcome their legacy of conflict to forge a common future that benefits all?

Consider the relationship between America’s closest East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. Though historical disagreements have long hampered bilateral ties, the increasingly nationalistic stance of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye has aggravated festering tensions. If they fail to work together to stem the revival of bitter historical disputes, their relationship will remain frozen, playing into China’s hands.

And nobody plays the history card with quite as much relish as China, where President Xi Jinping is also relying on nationalism to legitimize his rule. Last year, China introduced two new national memorial days to commemorate China’s long battle against Japanese aggression in World War II: “War against Japanese Aggression Victory Day” on September 3 and “Nanjing Massacre Day” on December 13. What would happen if countries like Vietnam and India dedicated days to remembering China’s aggression toward them since 1949?

By reinforcing negative stereotypes of rival countries, such squabbles over history and remembrance sow fragmentation and instability, and have certainly fueled the region’s recent territorial disputes. Indeed, the politicization of history remains the principal obstacle to reconciliation in East Asia. Repeated attempts to rewrite history – sometimes literally, through textbook revisions – along nationalist lines make it nearly impossible to establish regional institutions.

This should not be the case. Japan and South Korea, for example, are vibrant democracies and export-oriented economic powerhouses, with traditionally close cultural ties and many shared values. In other words, they are ideal candidates for collaboration.

US President Barack Obama recognizes this potential, and has promoted increased strategic cooperation between South Korea and Japan in order to underpin a stronger trilateral security alliance with the US that can balance a rising China. But Japan and South Korea refuse to let go of history.

To be sure, there is some truth to South Korea’s accusation that Japan is denying some of its past behavior. But it is also true that Park – who has refused to meet formally with Abe until he addresses lingering issues over Japan’s annexation of Korea – has used history to pander to domestic nationalist sentiment. Indeed, adopting a hardline stance has enabled her to whitewash some inconvenient family history: Her father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, collaborated with the Japanese military while Korea was under colonial rule.

Abe, too, has stoked tensions, particularly by visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine – a controversial memorial that honors, among others, Class A war criminals from World War II. Though Abe visited the shrine only once – in December 2013 – he felt compelled to do so in response to China’s unilateral declaration of an air-defense identification zone, covering territories that it claims but does not control.

Of course, the divergences between Japanese and South Korean historical narratives go back further than WWII. More than a century ago, the Korean activist Ahn Jung-geun assassinated Japan’s first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito, at the railway station in the Chinese city of Harbin, cementing Ahn’s status as a hero in Korea and a terrorist in Japan. Ito’s image can be seen on Japan’s 1,000-yen note; Ahn has appeared on a 200-won postage stamp in South Korea.

A visitor looking at exhibits at the Chinese memorial to the Korean assassin who killed Japan's first PM. © AFP

A visitor looking at exhibits at the Chinese memorial to the Korean assassin who killed Japan’s first PM. © AFP

Last year, Park asked Xi to honor Ahn. Xi seized the opportunity to drive a wedge between America’s two main Asian allies, and built a memorial to Ahn. Japan responded by blasting China for glorifying a terrorist and propagating a “one-sided” view of history – a move that, Japan asserted, was “not conducive to building peace and stability.”

Such conflicts have a clear catalyst: Asia’s rising prosperity. As their economies have expanded, Asian countries have gained the confidence to construct and exalt a new past, in which they either downplay their own aggressions or highlight their steadfastness in the face of brutal victimization.

All countries’ legitimizing narratives blend historical fact and myth. But, in some cases, historical legacies can gain excessive influence, overwhelming leaders’ capacity to make rational policy choices. That explains why Park has sought closer ties with China, even though South Korea’s natural regional partner is democratic Japan. One source of hope stems from Abe’s landslide victory in the recent snap general election, which gives him the political capital to reach out to Park with a grand bargain: If Japan expresses remorse more clearly for its militaristic past, South Korea will agree to leave historical grievances out of official policy.

Japan and South Korea cannot change the past. But they can strive to shape a more cooperative future. As a Russian proverb succinctly puts it, “Forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes.”

© Project Syndicate, 2015.