Japan has reason to celebrate these days. Several weeks ago, a baby named Hisahito was born -- the first male heir to the "Chrysanthemum throne" in four decades. And Tuesday, Shinzo Abe took over as prime minister, after promising to make the country stronger and more influential on the world stage.
Well, bully for Japan, you might reply, but why does this matter to me, living and working in Chicago?
To answer that, consider this: Much of what we buy these days is made in Asia, and there's little doubt of the vital role the region will play in the future. In this key region, we need more than a valuable trade partner. We need a partner in defense and diplomacy. That's why it's critical that we fashion with Japan the sort of "special relationship" we've long enjoyed with Britain.
This is where the new prime minister comes in. Shinzo Abe is an avowed Japanese nationalist, proud of his nation's heritage -- and its future. As he told a reporter last year, "You refer to me as rather nationalistic, but I say that the person who is not patriotic cannot be the leader of his country."
In the United States, of course, such attitudes are routine; no politician would run for office without at least professing a belief in American greatness. However, Japan still lives with the shame of World War II.
Its constitution (written by Gen. Douglas MacArthur) forbids an offensive military. Instead, Japan has practiced "checkbook diplomacy," shelling out cash to support military missions undertaken by the United States. That's what Tokyo did in 1991, spending $13 billion to support the 1991 Gulf War, but didn't send a single soldier.
Under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Japan began taking a more active role in the world. Koizumi sent Japanese Self-Defense forces to Afghanistan and Iraq. Abe promises to continue moving in this direction.
The new leader says he wants to change the constitution to allow Japan to build a stronger fighting force. And he's announced he wants to strengthen military cooperation with the United States. That would end up benefiting both countries. For example, Abe wants to extend the law that allows Japanese ships to refuel naval vessels taking part in the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan. This cooperation allows the United States to accomplish more without sending extra ships, and it helps Japan build a better defense capability.
Japan may well need that capability. It sits on the front lines of virtually any future showdown in Asia. Take North Korea's recent missile launches. If those missiles worked, they could potentially reach American shores. But Japan knows North Korea could attack it at any time. And while Japan knows it can count on U.S. support, having its own skilled military could help deter North Korean aggression.
Japan and the United States have similar goals for Asia. In 2005, our countries signed a joint declaration to 1) support peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula; 2) ensure stability in the Taiwan Strait, and 3) maintain and enhance the stability of global energy supplies.
And let's not forget that a confident Japan also could serve as a check on China, which is rising economically and militarily. Together, Tokyo and Washington can help China integrate into the world as a responsible stakeholder in the existing international system and eventually even move toward a democratic system of government.
It's time to rethink Japan's defense policy. With a declining population and a long democratic tradition, today's Japan doesn't threaten Asian security. In fact it's critical to maintaining security there.
Just as Britain helps the United States protect Europe and the Middle East, Japan can help us protect Asia. If we cooperate with Japan, by the time Hisahito takes the throne, the United States can have another "special relationship" -- and a safer world. That would be a birth for all to celebrate.
First Appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times