Hostage crisis an excuse for Japan to remilitarize?

TOKYO – While world leaders condemn the apparent killing of Japanese hostage Haruna Yukawa and the threats against a second, China’s reaction to the crisis has been notably tepid and grudging.

Despite offering condolences for the murdered hostage, state media quickly used the crisis as an excuse to pummel one of its favorite targets – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“The killing is the price that Japan has paid for its support of Washington,” the China Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party, said in an editorial, which went on to speculate that Abe would use the crisis to repeal his country’s pacifist constitution.

The Global Times, a party-published newspaper aimed at international readers, predicted that the crisis would allow Japan to relax restrictions on the deployment of its armed forces.

“Abe is more concerned about promoting rightist policies than rescuing hostages,” it said.

The animosity between Beijing and Tokyo, or China’s cry that Japan is marching towards “remilitarization,” is nothing new.

Tokyo supports the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Its most concrete contribution to the alliance, a $200 million package of non-military aid, was announced by Abe in Cairo during his recent tour of the Middle East and was grasped by the group that held Yukawa and still holds journalist Kenji Goto to demand a $200 million ransom for the pair’s release last week.

It has since substituted that demand with one calling for the release of convicted terrorist Sajida al-Rishawi from Jordanian custody.

Abe’s support for the coalition has followed previous support for U.S.-led campaigns in the Middle East and the premier is keen to raise Japan’s profile in international affairs.

Although restricted constitutionally, Japan contributed billions of dollars to the coalition formed in 1991 to retake Kuwait and in 2003 Tokyo sent a construction battalion to Iraq that operated under severe restrictions. Japanese navy oil tankers also refueled coalition ships supporting the war in Afghanistan.

Each of these actions required special legislation. The Abe government is currently considering a series of new amendments to the Self Defense Forces Act to enable even closer military cooperation between Japan and the U.S. and possibly other allies.

This attempt to incresase the projection of Japan’s military has been accompanied in recent years by a rise in defense spending.

In July, the cabinet issued a statement “re-interpreting” the constitution to allow for “collective defense” – opening the way for greater cooperation with the U.S. and others.

Even as the hostage crisis unfolded, Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida were in London discussing closer cooperation on developing new armaments. Tokyo last year relaxed its traditional ban on weapons’ exports.

Before collective defense can go into effect, however, the Japanese parliament has to pass a series of new laws and amendments to the Self-Defense Act. This was to have been accomplished in the last parliamentary session but the administration pulled the bills rather than have this divisive issue become part of last month’s snap election.

The new parliament will be called on to pass those laws in the current session. Opinion polls have shown the public to be split on the issue and it is too early to say what effect the hostage crisis will have.

One the one hand, an increased military role abroad raises long-standing Japanese concerns that the country will be dragged into Middle East conflicts – even though Japan’s defense priorities lie closer to home with the threat posed by an increasingly powerful China looking to extend its regional influence and an unstable North Korea.

On the other, the crisis underscores Japan’s impotence in the face to threats to its nationals. It is deeply galling to Japan’s leaders that they have had to rely so heavily on Jordan to handle the ongoing hostage crisis – and perhaps let the country as a whole become hostage to the policies of other countries.

Copyright © 2015 Anadolu Agency