Japanese, Other Asians Debate Tokyo’s Aspirations for Larger Role
TOKYO (AP) _ No longer resigned to being a diplomatic wallflower, Japan is shedding postwar taboos and gingerly approaching its neighbors about a broader security role in Asia.
While Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa cautiously broached suggestions for regional security talks with Southeast Asian nations during a weeklong, five- nation tour that ended Monday, other Japanese leaders were urging a rethinking of their country’s pacifist constitution.
The Japanese largely agree that as a major economic power, their nation cannot remain a diplomatic bystander, although many are unsure how far it should go in stepping up its role as an international peacekeeper.
And many Japanese join their Asian neighbors in worrying that Tokyo has not publicly explained or debated what it plans to do.
As the Singapore newspaper Business Times put it, Japan ″has yet to define the regional role it wants to play.″
Until recently, leaders in Tokyo shied away from even hinting about a larger military role, fearing protests from Asian nations that suffered Japanese aggression during World War II.
The postwar constitution prohibits using military force, and debate on constitutional change has been virtually taboo among a populace with bitter memories of their defeat in the war.
But Japan’s conservative leaders have gradually been lobbying for change, arguing that the United States’ scaling down of its presence in the region raise the risk of a dangerous leadership vaccuum.
Part of Japan’s interest in a higher profile is motivated by a desire to further expand its already considerable economic interests in the region. While more mature markets in North America and Europe languish in recession, Asia enjoys some of the world’s fastest economic growth for Japanese companies.
Leaders were frustrated during the Persian Gulf War by Western criticism that Tokyo had sent money, but no personnel, to help the allies drive Iraq out of Kuwait.
During Miyazawa’s absence this last week, other Japanese leaders edged toward enlarging their nation’s military role and ending its commitment not to use force even in peacekeeping. Under current law, the 700 Japanese troops in Cambodia - the first ground troops sent overseas since World War II - are barred from activities likely to involve armed conflict. Some leaders, such as Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe, say they would like to see that changed.
Last week, the governing Liberal Democratic Party produced a new policy outline that says the taboo on using military force abroad ended with Japan’s dispatch of peacekeeping engineers to Cambodia last year.
And the chairman of the party’s policy council, Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, said he would propose a constitutional review in the session of parliament that opens Friday.
The timing of these developments allowed Miyazawa to distance himself from them while reassuring the leaders he visited that Tokyo has no intention of seeking regional military domination again.
In a low-key policy speech in Thailand, Miyazawa proposed that Asian nations begin a dialogue on security issues and on joint efforts to help rebuild Indochina after decades of war.
But Miyazawa pledged that Japan would never again become a military power and that the U.S. military presence would continue to underpin regional security.
Miyazawa said he opposed changing the constitution or taking on a greater military role in U.N. peacekeeping. He told Japanese reporters accompanying him that advocates of such a revision should remember what happened during World War II.
″I must continue to assert Japan must not repeat those mistakes,″ he said.
Proposals for a more active military are extremely controversial in Japan, where many people have grown comfortable with a national policy of pacificism.
″Sending the military is an easy answer. It’s much harder to think of non- military solutions,″ says Yuko Mitsuya, a social commentator.