If you're looking for some context for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Australia this week, and his speech to parliament earlier today, you could do worse than spend five minutes with Ian Buruma's op-ed.
Abe has recently announced a re-interpretation of Japan's constitution to allow his country's armed forces to take part in operations alongside allies that are not directly related to Japanese security. Some have conflated this move with Abe's nationalism, his determination to restore patriotic pride, and his visit to Yasakuni Shrine (where Japanese war criminals are buried) to imply that we are witnessing the beginnings of some kind of imperial Japanese revanchism. Buruma rightly dismissed that theory:
The contradiction in Abe’s nationalism is this: even as he talks about sovereignty regained and patriotic pride, he has done nothing to distance Japan from the postwar dominance of the US. On the contrary, his reinterpretation of the constitution is meant to help the US in its military policing of East Asia.
In fact, what appears to be driving Abe’s endeavors even more than the desire to revise the postwar order in Japan is a widely shared fear of China’s increasing regional dominance. A cursory glance at the Japanese press, or even the kind of books piled high in Japanese bookstores, shows just how frightened the Japanese are. All of the talk in Tokyo is about Chinese aggression in the East and South China Seas.
Abe’s reinterpretation, then, is not really a radical departure from the postwar order at all. China’s growing power has actually reinforced Japanese dependence on the US for its security.
What we heard from Abe in the Australian parliament this morning (full transcript) is that Australia has now been willingly enlisted in this cause (my emphasis):
So far as national security goes, Japan has been self absorbed for a long time. Now, Japan has built a determination. As a nation that longs for permanent peace in the world, and as a country whose economy is among the biggest, Japan is now determined to do more to enhance peace in the region, and peace in the world. Ladies and gentlemen, it is to put that determination into concrete action, that Japan has chosen to strengthen its ties with Australia...
...There are many things Japan and Australia can do together by each of us joining hands with the United States, an ally for both our nations. Japan is now working to change its legal basis for security so that we can act jointly with other countries in as many ways as possible. We want to make Japan a country that will work to build an international order that upholds the rule of law.
Note the three-way link Abe draws between Australia, the US and Japan, which could yet prove consequential. Because as Buruma concludes, Washington's security guarantee to Tokyo is becoming more 'fraught with danger' as Japan's relationship with China erodes, with the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute being the flashpoint. Why? Because 'it risks dragging the world's largest military power into petty regional conflicts'.
Now more than ever, the risk is that allies of the world's largest military power will get dragged along too.