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Monday, July 2, 2001

A more active Japan would benefit Asia

LOS ANGELES -- Alarm bells will start sounding across Asia in August. That's when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi plans to visit Tokyo's most famous Shinto shrine, Yasukuni, which honors not only Japan's war dead since the 19th century but also, inconveniently, convicted war criminals, including wartime Premier Hideki Tojo.

Although Koizumi undoubtedly views the ceremonial occasion as nothing more menacing than a political genuflection to powerful domestic constituencies, many in Asia will view the visit as further evidence of Japan's possible remilitarization -- and continued insensitivity to the war-crime issue.

In Asia -- where the past is never, ever forgotten -- Japan's war record is anything but a neutral subject. Indeed, alarm bells are already ringing over Koizumi's announced intention to revise Article 9 of the Constitution, which restricts the military to a defensive role.

But U.S. officials believe that a greater Japanese military involvement in regional peacekeeping is not only inevitable, but -- if handled properly -- beneficial. One of those is Adm. Dennis Blair, who has done serious thinking about Japan's military role. Though not a Washington policymaker, the admiral, as head of the U.S. Pacific Command in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, is the senior U.S. military officer in the Asia Pacific. And he all but prays for greater Japanese military contributions as opportunities arise.

"If Japan can proceed in a careful, consultative and deliberate manner," Blair told me last week, "that would be very welcome." Emphasizing that his views are not policy statements, but his own, he explained that he chafes more about an Asia that lacks multilateral cooperation than the reappearance of ghosts from Japan's militaristic past.

"Countries in Asia are becoming more imaginative," he noted happily, "and they well appreciate the meat-and-potatoes value of soldiers and sailors from different nations working side by side." He raved, for example, about tiny Singapore's unprecedented contribution of a full-fledged, fully equipped infantry unit to help stabilize East Timor in its shaky march toward self-governing autonomy.

The admiral would not be unhappy if Tokyo were to make similar contributions in easing tension spots like East Timor ("not necessarily militarily," he adds swiftly, "but with logistics, things like helicopter transportation"), or to take part in crisis evacuation operations, or help combat sea piracy, a growing Asian problem.

But even non-controversial activities can become major issues in Japan, whose long-entrenched pacifist tradition stems from the still-remembered devastation of World War II. Even so, Blair may be onto something: Suddenly Tokyo, under Koizumi, who met with U.S. President George W. Bush at Camp David on Saturday, may be ready for change. "Actually, Japan has made overtures to patrol privacy hot spots," revealed Blair. "This has been welcomed by all countries in the region, except China."

Well, sort of.

In truth, Japan must still contend with its wartime record of excessive violence against civilians, and an unwillingness to face up to the past, whether through sanitized school textbooks or wishy-washy official statements. The country is, in fact, more worrisome to many Asians than even military-modernizing China. Despite its immense economic, technological and cultural achievements, Japan is not trusted, despite its long record of peacetime economic contributions to the region.

"Every Japanese leader I've talked to," said Blair, "understands the weight of history on its shoulders." But Asians can and should get over Japan's past. Asians are increasingly prepared to "look at the overall modern pattern of Japan, not just one high-profile incident," such as the Yasukuni visit. He believes they would offer Japan a new open-mindedness were it to handle the military restructuring in a non-threatening way. "Most of the other countries in Asia have decided to turn a page on that issue," he claimed.

China, as well? "Paranoids everywhere will seize whatever they want to seize on," he said, pointing out that the People's Liberation Army will drum up any point of contention for a greater share of China's budget. "Beijing itself should also make a big contribution in East Timor," the blunt-spoken admiral added, "and I've told them so."

If that unlikely scenario should come to pass, it would be a phenomenal development, of course. It would mean that Asia, as a region, finally decided to limit past animosities from getting in the way of a new cooperative future. That's an inspiring thought but, alas, not a particularly good bet.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser. His column is distributed internationally by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.

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