Yuka Hayashi reports for The Wall Street Journal that on Sept. 17, 2013, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made the case for what would be one of the most radical changes to the country’s postwar military: expanding its now strictly limited self-defense role.
Abe made the case for he calls “active pacifism” — a broader constitutional interpretation of the military’s restricted mandate –before a special advisory panel on defense-related laws that is expected to recommend such changes this fall.
With a mandate gained through a strong election victory in July, Abe is accelerating his push to strengthen Japan’s defense. He has made clear that he wants to revise the postwar constitution that renounces any use of force except in direct defense of the country. He went so far as to tell supporters last month that constitutional revision is his “historic mission.”
But changing the constitution remains a highly divisive issue, and accomplishing it could take years. So instead, Abe is focusing on a drive to reinterpret the constitution’s current language, administration officials say. Specifically, that means asserting the right to exercise collective self-defense, or lifting the self-imposed ban on aiding allies being attacked.For more than a half century, the government has said the constitution doesn’t allow for such military action. But Abe and his aides say the time is ripe for a change, citing growing security risks in Asia, including China’s military buildup and North Korea’s nuclear threats. Reinterpreting the constitution is important, they say, as it would allow for closer cooperation with the U.S. military and sharply boost the bilateral alliance’s role in deterrence.
In the prime minister’s annual speech to senior military officials last week, Abe said, “We can’t have a situation where we put burdens on our troops because we can’t free ourselves from unrealistic principles. We must start playing a bigger role.”Japanese officials fear that the status quo could put them in a highly embarrassing position, citing hypothetical cases that could arise while Japanese forces are patrolling with the U.S. Navy, tracking a North Korean missile headed for Hawaii or helping a Philippine ship battling pirates in the Indian Ocean.
“Please imagine a situation where a U.S. warship protecting waters around Japan comes under a missile attack when our Aegis ship is nearby,” Abe told reporters in July. “If we don’t shoot it down despite our capability, the American ship will sink and many young lives will be lost. Can we maintain the alliance under such a circumstance? That’s among the real questions we face.”People close to Abe say the prime minister will likely make a formal decision whether to allow collective self-defense before year’s end. Abe can decide on the reinterpretation without legislative approval, but Japan’s Parliament would have to follow with a cascade of changes in defense-related laws and policies, including the main law that covers the country’s Self-Defense Forces.
Washington has sent mixed signals. On one hand, U.S. officials and some politicians like Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona welcome Japan’s desire to play a bigger defense role and so reduce the U.S. burden.
But there are also concerns that asserting the right to exercise collective self-defense could worsen Japan’s already prickly relations with China and South Korea. Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has expressed caution. “If the government of Japan and its people decide to alter or reinterpret what the nature of defense is, we will review that at that time to understand how that will play into the greater regional security efforts,” he told reporters in Tokyo last month.Any signs of greater military readiness by Japan have typically brought sharp responses from China. Asked about collective self-defense, the Chinese Foreign Ministry would say only that “we hope that Japan can learn from history and walk in the road of peaceful development, respecting concerns of countries in this region and making a contribution to the regional peace and stability.”Even within Japan, support for the collective self-defense drive is tepid, despite Abe’s popularity. A poll published by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun daily earlier this month showed 54% opposition against 32% support. Opposition parties, and even New Komeito, the coalition partner of Abe’s party, have balked at Abe’s push.
Opponents say the change would lead to a military buildup that would heighten regional tensions and increase the risk of conflict. If Japan shoots down a North Korean missile flying toward the U.S., for example, Pyongyang could retaliate by attacking Japan. Soon, the nations would be at war, critics say.”What we need is better crisis management in foreign policy. Playing up defense capability is not going to help, ” said Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former senior official at the defense ministry who now heads International Geopolitics Institute Japan, a private think tank.
Abe is determined to move ahead, however. His special advisory panel will hold several meetings over the next few months before delivering its recommendation.To help ensure political support and that discussions on the constitutional interpretation go smoothly, Abe recently appointed a new head to the government agency that delivers legal interpretations of administration policies and legislation—a separate body from his advisory panel on defense laws. In the past, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau has said that exercising collective self-defense isn’t permitted by the constitution. But the new director-general, former diplomat and international law expert Ichiro Komatsu, is seen as more supportive of Abe’s views. In his 2011 book on international law, Komatsu compared the right of collective self-defense with the right to help a neighbor being attacked by a robber.