Japan set to lift taboo on making war

JAPAN'S ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is preparing to review the country's 1947 anti-war constitution - long a taboo subject in this country, which has still to come to terms with wartime atrocities committed against its neighbours. The LDP proposal comes from Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, chairman of the party's policy affairs research council, but has been publicly supported in recent weeks by the Foreign Minister, Michio Watanabe.

The pretext for a review of the constitution is that Article Nine in its present form makes Japanese participation in UN peace-keeping operations problematic - since it renounces the use of force without reservation. But the long- term intention - rarely admitted openly except by right-wing extremists - is to reshape the anti- war provision which effectively emasculates the Japanese military at a time of rapid military build-up by Japan's most feared neighbour, China.

'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 . . . land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,' read the crucial parts of Article Nine of the constitution, imposed on Japan by General MacArthur's administration after the last war.

For decades this has suited Japan nicely, as the US looked after external security and Tokyo could concentrate on economic development. The constitution was twisted to allow a small military force, called the Self-Defence Forces, to be established for internal security.

But now that the Cold War has ended and the US is reducing its troops in Asia, Japan is suddenly waking up to the fact that it is right in the middle of a very dangerous region. Since 1990 China has embarked upon a huge build- up of its military capability, largely by buying up hardware from the former Soviet Union's arsenal. China has already obtained long- range bombers, updated fighter aircraft, missiles, radar and in- flight refuelling equipment, and is widely thought to be negotiating for an aircraft carrier.

Peking has shown its determination to project its military force right up to the shores of Japan, Korea and South-east Asia. Intelligence reports also suggest that China is building a naval base on the coast of Burma - with the connivance of the junta in Rangoon - which would project the Chinese navy into the Indian Ocean as well.

But Japan has been reluctant to criticise its large neighbour. Even when Chinese navy ships fire on Japanese trawlers in the East China Sea close to a disputed group of islands, something that happens on average once a month, no protest is issued and the Chinese ships are not even directly identified in media reports. The Japanese government argues that it cannot afford to isolate China, but some defence specialists have begun to criticise this as a policy of appeasement which will prove counter-productive.

Masashi Nishihara, of the National Defence Academy in Yokosuka, said: 'We should confront them, but we don't dare, because we are scared of China.' Professor Nishihara said that there are two possible kinds of order in Asia: 'We can allow China to become dominant, or we can be more equal by confronting them.' He said Japan should effectively treat China like the US treated the former Soviet Union - by facing them down and then negotiating arms reduction treaties.

Up to now the only leverage Japan has is its economic power and its large foreign aid budget. Meanwhile, those in the LDP who argue Japan should reform its constitution so that it could have an army like any other country have a hard battle ahead of them. Public opinion polls regularly show a majority are against removing the anti-war provision - largely because so far reform has been associated with radical right-wing groups.

Even the Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, during his Asian tour last week, spoke out against the idea. He referred to Japan's record as an aggressor in the Second World War, and said: 'I have to continue to assert that Japan must not repeat those mistakes.'