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Playing with Fire in the South China Sea: the Voyage of the Izumi

by

Beijing.

An aircraft carrier that dare not be named one and a show of military force by a country in

contravention of its own constitution herald the consequences of a decision taken some years ago signaling that post-war certainty is no longer such a sure thing.

The Izumo, a 250-meter-long “flat-topped destroyer’’, is being dispatched to the South China Sea by Japan in May in a show of force not seen since 1945.

Named after a cruiser that was sunk by the US in 1945, the warship is in reality an aircraft carrier by any other name. However, aircraft carriers imply a force projection well beyond Japan’s shores, therefore it must be called a destroyer or a helicopter carrier.

After stops in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, the Izumo will then take part in the Malabar joint naval exercise with Indian and US naval vessels in the Indian Ocean in July.

China claims almost all the disputed waters through which the Izumo will plough its wake. Japan does not have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea but does have one in the East China Sea. A growing military presence has fuelled concern in Japan and the West about China.

Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei also claim parts of the South China Sea which has rich fishing grounds, oil and gas deposits and through which around $5 trillion of global sea-borne trade passes each year.

China sees the US backing Japan and pushing it to take on the role of a regional policeman.  The quaintly named US pivot to Asia is in reality a major naval build up just off its coast.

The Izumo’s passage is the latest signal that the world changed on July 1, 2014. That sentence is not a resort to a clapped-out cliché. When the Tokyo cabinet on that day “reinterpreted”, in fact overrode, a key clause in its constitution meant to ensure the country’s post-war pacifist approach, it ushered in an era of uncertainty. Since 1945 it has been taken as certain that Japanese troops would never be sent in to combat zones should conflict occur in the Far East.

The reinterpretation of the war-renouncing Article 9 by the Tokyo cabinet means that is no longer the case. There is no clamor in Japan for reinterpretation. Quite the opposite. Opinion polls show a clear majority against reinterpretation. Defenders of reinterpretation claim that the security situation is changing and Japan has to adapt to the new circumstances. China is flexing its increasing military muscle and even has an aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a refitted hulk it bought from Ukraine. Therefore, Tokyo’s argument goes, Japan must take on a greater burden of its defense responsibilities and free itself from the shackles of a constitution that is outdated and imposed on it by the occupying US forces in 1947. China sees it somewhat differently. It views the reinterpretation as the latest sign of a Japan that is becoming more aggressive to China and by ditching Article 9, a Rubicon has been crossed. In 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the United Nations that Japan will “newly bear” the flag of “proactive pacifism”. Decoded, it means confront China.

A month before Abe’s UN speech, Japan launched the Izumo.

When all these are added up, Beijing sees the sum of its fears.

Article 9 of the Japanese constitution is written in a language that is crisp and clear and seems, at first hand, not to require any reinterpretation as the official English translation of the article shows.

“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.’’

Abe claims that this allows Japan to export arms, deploy troops overseas and continue with a military build up.

Policies are often presented in poetry and government is normally conducted in the less idealistic manner of prose but Abe’s skills at reinterpretation require a linguistic flexibility that normally falls under the category of fiction.

“By simply changing the interpretation of the constitution to achieve its policy objectives, the Abe administration is violating the status of the constitution as the nation’s supreme law to which all other laws and government decisions must conform,’’ the Japan Times said in an editorial on July 2, 2014.

“The move,’’ it continued, “will serve as a dangerous precedent for Japan’s democracy that must be based on the rule of law under the constitution. By taking cues from the decision, future administrations may try to render clauses in the constitution meaningless by merely reinterpreting the clauses to fit their agenda through cabinet decisions. Abe insisted that the cabinet decision does not harm the normative nature of the Constitution. This is a lie.’’

These are strong words that would defy even Abe’s ability to reinterpret.

Tom Clifford is a freelance journalist and can be reached at: cliffordtomsan@hotmail.com.

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