Japan as peacekeeper: Samurai state, or new civilian power?

Author/s (editor/s):

Peter Polomka

Publication year:


Publication type:

Policy paper

Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence No. 97

Japan has joined UN peacekeeping operations at a time of fundamental change and considerable uncertainty in international society. The United States, and other Western allies, had insisted during the gulf crisis that Japan should contribute personnel as well as money, to collective efforts to maintain world peace and security, and that its contribution should be 'commensurate' with its economic and financial standing. But far from striding boldly into the ranks of peacekeepers, Japan has hesitantly taken only a half step forward. Tokyo hopes that it can juggle conflicting demands; on the one hand, for sustaining its security alliance with the United States absent a Soviet threat, and, on the other, for managing the domestic turmoil and regional anxiety caused by needing to reinterpret its Peace Constitution to send its Self-Defence Forces (SDF) overseas for the first time since World War II. The end of the Cold War removed a buffer between Japan and its history and geography - the reality of living cheek by jowl with China, Korea and Russia; it also exposed Japan more nakedly to the key contemporary challenge - the global contest for economic strength and technological prowess - and, especially, to the import of American perceptions that Japan's success in these fields, rather than any hostile military power, most threatened America's future.

Pressure on Japan during the Gulf crisis had the salutary effect of an overdue 'wake up' call. Japan needed to move more robustly in contributing to international security than it was at that time. But it was insensitive and mistaken to have pushed for the overseas dispatch of the SDF. Instead, Washington, and other allies, should have actively helped Japan find non-military ways to fulfil its international responsibilities which the great majority of Japanese people could fully support, and which would have helped reassure Japan's neighbours of its commitment not to become a military power which threatens other countries.

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