Is a less pacifist-Japan on collision with China?

The risks of Japan's new defense policies
The risks of Japan's new defense policies

Japan's historic departure from a pacifist constitution has irked China. While that doesn't mean Asia's two biggest economies are on a collision course, relations are unlikely to improve soon either, analysts say.

Earlier this week, Japan ended a ban that has kept the military from fighting abroad since 1945. That marks a sea-change for a country that adopted a pacifist constitution after the end of World War II.

The move comes against a backdrop of heightened tensions between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed islands in the East China Sea and general anxiety in the region about the rise of China and its growing assertiveness.

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"I think that's certainly how the policy has been presented to the Japanese people – that in an increasingly dangerous region, not just because of China and its territorial claims but also because of North Korea and its missile tests, Japan needs to have more tools in its defense tool box," said Tina Burrett, an assistant professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

"I don't think that necessarily means that Japan and China are on a collision course but this move will be read negatively in China and it's already developing a narrative on Japan's rising nationalism and aggression," she added.

Ending the ban on "collective self-defense" widens Japan's military options and puts it more in line with the militaries of other developed economies.

Still pacifist?

The government also said it would relax limits on activities in U.N. led peace-keeping operations short of engagement in full-scale war.

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"[Japan Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe has made an explicit reference that Japan will never become a country that wages war again," said Stephen Nagy, Associate Professor at International Christian University.

"And there's certain limitation within the re-interpretation -- talking about not willing to send troops to combat zones. So it's not a concept of offense, it's a concept of defense working collectively with other countries," he added.

A Buddhist monk (R) holds a placard while joining other protesters as they shout slogans against the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Tokyo.
Yoshikazu Tsuno | AFP | Getty Images

Tony Nash, Vice President at Delta Economics, adds that the move should be seen in the context of Abe's plans to modernize Japan as well as lend support to key ally the U.S.

"It may come across as nationalistic, but what Abe is trying to do is create a new identity for Japan as he modernizes the country," said Nash.

"Also, look at the dynamics of the U.S. pivot to Asia and U.S. military cutbacks, in that sense this move is kind of inevitable," he added.


Still, it's a sensitive topic – not just with Japanese voters but also within Asia where memories of Japanese imperialism during the Second World War remain deep.

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At the end of last year for instance, a visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo that honors Japan's war dead, including some convicted war criminals angered China and South Korea.

"On the domestic Chinese side, the constitutional reform is akin to [a] re-militarization of imperial Japan [and this] really puts ordinary Chinese on their toes and brings them together to coalesce around a Chinese government," said Nagy at the International Christian University.