Korea's neighbor across the East Sea is on a path to seeking international influence that is commensurate to its economic power. on Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presided over the official inauguration of the Defense Ministry before embarking on a four-nation European tour. Both events mark the emergence of a more confident Japan that would like to be recognized as a global power.
Japan's Defense Agency was upgraded to Defense Ministry 53 years after its establishment. If Abe and his rightist supporters are successful, the country's pacifist constitution drafted after its defeat in World War II will be also revised. Despite Abe's statement that other nations have nothing to fear from a more assertive Japan, the apparent resurgence of militarism in Japan is worrisome for Korea whose memories of its harsh colonial rule are still raw and painful.
New Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma said, "The birth of the Defense Ministry is not a goal, but a start to tackling new policy challenges," signaling that country's willingness to become a greater global player. Despite official pacifism, Japan has one of the world's largest military budgets at $41.6 billion a year.
The Defense Ministry will now be able to request a budget directly from the Finance Ministry and will be able to propose legislation, making it much more independent. The Self Defense Forces also saw the expansion of its activities on Tuesday as the result of laws enacted in December. Some activities previously defined as auxiliary missions, including participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations, defense mobilization, and disaster relief operations, were upgraded to duties. Currently, the Self Defense Forces provides offshore refueling services for NATO for its missions in Afghanistan. In 2004, Japan sent troops on a reconstruction mission to Iraq, the first time it deployed its Self Defense Forces to a country where fighting was underway.
Speaking at the Defense Ministry inauguration ceremony, Japanese Prime Minister Abe, the first Japanese leader to be born after World War II, said, "We have shaken off the postwar regime, and this marks a big step forward and a foundation of nation-building."
That nation-building seems to include playing a greater role in the international community. Visiting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the first leg of his four nation tour, Abe was given explicit backing for Japan's renewed bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. In 2005, attempts by Japan, Brazil, Germany and India to sit on the Security Council as new permanent members were foiled due to opposition from China which demanded greater amends for the atrocities Japan committed before and during World War II.
In Berlin, Abe told the European Union to maintain its arms embargo on China, claiming that if the embargo were lifted, it would have a negative impact on the East Asian region and would be a "big problem" for Japan. Japan seeks a strategic partnership with China but is concerned about China's military buildup.
Abe will be the first-ever Japanese leader to visit NATO this week. The visit with NATO chief Jaap de Hoof Scheffer will be a "conversation of equals," according to a NATO spokesperson. The two sides are expected to discuss how Japan could increase its contribution in Afghanistan.
The Abe government's next goal is to revise the pacifist constitution to allow for collective defense. Under the current constitution, such joint activities are banned. The organizational revamp of the Ministry of Defense included the establishment of a joint Japan-U.S. defense cooperation section. Responding to the growing threat from North Korea and possible military buildup in China, Japan is seeking a greater military alliance with the United States.
Before Japan starts flexing greater military muscle, however, it must first work to gain the trust of its neighbors and demonstrate that the country's greater global role will not be a threat to them.