By Angela Luh
A series of grisly, high-profile executions of international hostages by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have pushed counterterrorism efforts to the forefront of many foreign policy agendas. The atrocities committed by ISIS – the massacre of thousands of Muslim civilians in Syria and Iraq, minority groups like Christians and Yazidis, and Western journalists and aid workers – have been amplified with the exploitation of mass media to publicize its crimes. The graphic nature of the videos and images has made ISIS a more imminent security threat on both sides of the Pacific. Of significance are the reactions from the Asia Pacific, a region that has traditionally held noninterventionist policies toward extraterritorial problems.
The international scope of ISIS’s crimes have shaken two major East Asian actors, Japan and China, both of whom have long avoided confrontations with terrorist groups in the Middle East. Japan’s long-standing pacifist foreign policy, colored by its WWII legacy, is evident in its limited defense capabilities and constitutional limits on the use of military defense. China, too, has been opposed to interfering in intraregional conflicts and was an open critic of the US’s responsibility-to-protect (R2P) mission in Libya and the Iraq war.
Japan’s rude awakening came in ISIS’s execution of two Japanese nationals, 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa and 47-year-old Kenji Goto, in late January, forcing the peaceful nation to rethink its approach to national security. In one of the most high-profile hostage situations since ISIS began its macabre practice of videotaping executions of its captives, ISIS demanded a $200 million ransom from the Japanese government and set a 72-hour deadline for the government to respond. The situation coincided with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s six-day visit to the Middle East and speech in Cairo in which he pledged $200 million in non-military aid to countries confronting ISIS. After 11 days of uncertainty, ending in the execution of both men, ISIS implicated Abe in the death of the hostages, citing Japan’s cooperation with the US as the reason for targeting the country.
ISIS’s horrific acts have elicited strong responses worldwide, with many committing to elevated counterterrorism efforts. President Obama last Tuesday took a hardline position, asking for an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to combat ISIS threats. The AUMF doesn’t call for the deployment of ground troops in Iraq or Syria but gives the military latitude to address “unforeseen circumstances.” The White House on Feb. 1 also issued a new National Security Strategy, the first in five years, listing “targeted counterterrorism operations” among its top priorities.
Of equal importance is the response from Japan, a country that, unlike the United States, has steered clear of Middle East conflicts and that, until now, has greatly restricted the use of its armed forces. Reacting to ISIS’s execution of Yukawa and Goto, Abe said, “I feel strong indignation at this inhumane and contemptible act of terrorism. I will never forgive these terrorists. Japan will work with the international community to bring those responsible for crimes to justice.” Abe, a neoconservative of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has used his presidency to advocate strengthening the country’s self-defense forces to bolster security ties with the United States. The high visibility of the ISIS ransom situation, which essentially saw Japan with its hands tied, gave Abe the opportunity to call for the strengthening of the country’s defense forces. With his statement and a promise of continued humanitarian aid for ISIS opponents, he effectively looped in Japan as a stakeholder in the U.S.’s new counterterrorism efforts, signaling a new level of involvement that breaches its Pacifist model. On a larger scale, the Japanese hostage crisis has framed the ISIS threat as a shared security interest for the region, calling into question the role of Asia-Pacific countries in counterterrorism efforts.
The death of the two Japanese hostages incited public outrage domestically, with a diplomat calling it the “9/11 for Japan.” There are broadly two reactions from Japan. The dominant Japanese public supports Abe’s more aggressive involvement on the international stage; in fact, since the hostage crisis, Abe’s approval ratings have risen from 53 to 58 percent. On the other hand, there is a strong sentiment from the Japanese left that Abe is capitalizing on the situation to extend his neoconservative agenda of remilitarizing Japan.
In the wake of the crisis, Abe asserted that he wants to make major changes to Japan’s constitution, which was crafted to prohibit Japan’s engagement in conflicts overseas. The hostage situation revealed a glaring gap in Japan’s ability to carry out rescue missions in other countries. Currently, Japan’s constitution prohibits the use of armed force in resolving international disputes and bars Japan from possessing the means of war. Abe will likely submit legislation to Japan’s parliament this spring that would allow the country’s military to fight alongside the United States and other forces. Japan’s reliance on the CIA and Turkish and Jordanian intelligence during the hostage crisis shed light on its need for mechanisms like hardware, training, and more effective organization. Abe has expressed an interest in creating an independent intelligence-gathering agency to protect nationals abroad. Already, the Japanese Diet has convened to examine how Japan could better respond to attacks on its national security.
Structural constraints in Japan’s legal system may limit the Abe administration from moving forward with major policy changes. The bill for increasing Self Defense Forces requires the approval of 2/3 of the Diet. Abe’s Collective Self Defense Legislation, a proposal he put forward last year, has not yet been approved. It’s likely, however, that increased support for Abe’s policies in light of recent events will allow the proposal to gain traction.
The reaction to Abe’s proposals hasn’t been entirely positive. The administration faced backlash from many Japanese who felt that Abe’s proactive engagement in the Middle East had incited the hostage crisis. Political opponents and Japanese liberals have faulted Abe for taking sides in the conflict in Syria and Iraq and putting a target on Japan’s back. There is also a preexisting “disengagement mentality” in Japan from the postwar era that was further reinforced by the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
But the days of Japan’s aversion to international conflicts may have come to an end, whether by choice or compulsion. Japan’s gradually changing defense strategy marks a paradigm shift for the pacifist nation. Though it will not get involved militarily, Japan is a critical partner in the Asia-Pacific for the United States in its mission to counter terrorism on all fronts.
The View from China
For the Chinese, the Japanese hostage situation put into perspective the likelihood of other Asia-Pacific nations becoming targets of ISIS threats. While the Xi administration has remained quiet on Japan’s crisis, it has developed its own counterterrorism efforts to contain violence both within and outside of its borders.
China, which has experienced recent attacks by violent extremists domestically, has been exponentially growing its military capacity and ensuring the stability of its political environment. The events have primarily been staged by ethnic minorities, including a 2013 attack in Tiananmen Square and a 2014 attack at the Kunming railway. China is particularly wary of addressing extremist activities on its western side. Xinjiang province in western China is populated by Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic-speaking minority group that has long been economically and politically isolated. The displacement bred discontent, and it’s estimated now that around 100 Chinese citizens, mostly Uighur separatists, may be fighting for ISIS. For the first time, China has recognized that its internal problems are tied to activities in outside terror organizations.
The attacks have made the issue of external terrorism a more immediate threat to China, which has stressed counterterrorism as a measure of cooperation in many of its bilateral talks, including those with India and the United States. President Xi Jinping in the 2014 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting promised to make a concerted effort to crack down on “three evil forces”: terrorism, extremism and separatism. China has also reacted to by improving relations in the past year with Afghanistan and Pakistan, expressing a willingness to increase humanitarian aid and to increase economic engagement in the region.
China’s actions and its draft law on counterterrorism issued in November last year are indicative of the country’s stakes in the Middle East conflict. A number of factors stand in the way of U.S.-China cooperation on counterterrorism, including different definitions of terrorism, reluctant intelligence sharing, and China’s opposition to the United States’ overseas missions. But as China continues to grapple with the challenge of extremist violence both within and outside of its territory, it will likely become a more cooperative international player.
Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific
Multilateral cooperation is essential in the containment of terrorist threats in the Middle East. While counterterrorism rhetoric has been a fixture in foreign policy for decades, the recent attention to ISIS’s international crimes have spurred countries in the Asia-Pacific to react with bolder defense strategies. The renewed commitment from China and Japan, two of the largest actors on the Pacific Rim, to address the ISIS threat is a significant development in the progress toward improving international security.
Photo by Global Panorama