Japan is the latest country to have its civilians held as hostages and threatened with execution by Islamic State (IS) terrorists unless a hefty ransom is paid. Shinzo Abe, the hawkish Japanese Prime Minister, has so far refused to pay the $200m demanded by the group. The crisis comes shortly after Abe announced nearly $3bn in non-military assistance for the war against IS.
Abe is determined for Japan to become a ‘normal’ country once again. That is, he wants to overturn the peace clause inserted in the Japanese constitution at the behest of America post-WWII, which forbids Japan from engaging in military activity unless its forces or people are directly attacked themselves. This means that Japan cannot even provide military aid to allies under threat.
During the Gulf War in 1990-1991, Japan gave some $10bn in financial assistance to the coalition forces fighting Saddam Hussein. This became known as ‘checkbook diplomacy’ and was the only option available for Japan to make a contribution befitting of its economic power.
This did not, however, translate into international prestige. Indeed, the Kuwaitis did not even acknowledge the Japanese contribution in the aftermath of the war, reserving their praise for those nations that had provided military assistance, which included countries as diverse as Luxembourg and Niger.
Japan’s constitution remains unchanged and therefore the checkbook is once more being opened for the campaign against IS. If Abe has his way – a large part of which will be overcoming the negative press being perpetuated by the Chinese and Koreans, who warn of a return to Japanese militarism – his country will deploy their extremely capable military personnel and highly-sophisticated hardware to the fight against global terrorism.
Unfortunately, the latest developments with the hostages will fuel the opposition at home to any constitutional amendment. Indeed, it will be seen as proof that a more visible Japanese role in international coalitions will endanger, rather than protect, its civilians. That the Japanese economy is enormously reliant on Middle Eastern oil will hold little sway in the argument.
Japan has paid heavily for its wartime legacy. It could be argued that the military restrictions placed on the country helped its economy develop into one of the most prominent in the world and swiftly turned a bitter enemy such as the USA into an invaluable ally, creating a bilateral relationship crucial to East Asian security.
It seems counter-productive, however, for both domestic and international pressure to restrict Japan’s global role when its people and technology could provide so much help to combating terrorism, securitising the oceans and bolstering peacekeeping forces around the world.
A lot will hinge on the outcome of the hostage crisis. Knowing IS, the result is likely to be an unhappy one for Japan and Abe.