Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet has postponed the submission of legal bills relating to collective self-defense until next year. The actual impact of the decision to reinterpret article 9 of the Japanese Constitution therefore remains unsure.
It is beyond doubt, however, that determining precisely under which conditions the Japanese military can to come to the aid of foreign allied forces under attack or defend friendly nations in the course of a U.N. mission, will prove highly complex. Temporarily shelving related legislation reveals just how controversial the issue continues to be among policymakers and general public alike.
The new policy, formally issued on July 1, 2014, has resulted in a revived domestic debate between an opposing camp deploring Abe’s “annihilation of article 9”, and supporters of the move who assert that the commotion is overblown and no groundbreaking changes should be expected in the short term.
The government’s incentives are clear. First, collective self-defense forms an additional tool to confront regional security threats from an increasingly assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea. It is also a valuable device promoting alliance building, especially in the context of Abe’s envisaged “Democratic Security Diamond”. Abe floated the idea of a security alliance between Japan and the U.S., Australia, and India in December 2012. In the past year, Japan has markedly stepped up security cooperation with the three other countries in terms of shared military technology, arms sales deals, and planned joint exercises.
A second important incentive is rooted in Abe’s long-held belief that collective self-defense stands for more autonomy and equality in Japan’s alliance with the U.S. It furthermore allows for a more self-reliant role in international missions without the “humiliating” dependence on other nations for the security of Japanese forces. In other words, it symbolizes another step towards breaking away from the post-war regime.
In addition to these two domestic drivers, U.S. pressure also played a role. In recent years, the U.S. has actively sought to enhance the alliance cooperation by allowing collective self-defense, for example in order to allow for joint operation of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems. Accepting collective self-defense is an essential ingredient of the scheduled revision the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance guidelines, which will likely materialize in 2015.
Judged from the angle of international cooperation, Japan’s policy shift on collective self-defense might not seem unreasonable. Even as a “civilian power”, Japan will likely be involved in military activities, including peacekeeping operations, under the U.N. flag. A clear decision on the possible scope of action, equipment and use of weapons is therefore only rational. However, viewed from domestic and regional perspectives the new policy course is problematic.
First of all, it should be kept in mind that the reinterpretation of the constitution overturns 60 years of government policy. It also follows a failed attempt to garner sufficient political support to amend article 96, so as to make it easier to formally revise the constitution. A reinterpretation therefore merits more debate and clarification, especially in view of insufficient public support for the new policy. The results of opinion polls differ according to the source. However, it seems undeniable that a majority of the population is unsupportive, that many agree that the government did not follow the proper procedures to achieve its goal, and that the necessity of reinterpreting the constitution was not explained sufficiently.
It is therefore essential that the Abe government address this “democratic deficit” both in the Diet and through a broader public debate with different stakeholder groups. It should be viable to explain in more detail and delineate the conditions under which collective self-defense would come into play, if Japan is serious about transforming from a non-military country focused on economic affairs, to a “global civilian power” which includes collective security activities in the U.N. framework.
More challenging, however, is the larger picture of Japan’s policy shift and the link with regional security. Undeniably, collective self-defense cannot be seen separately from other efforts to make Japan in the long term a more “normal” country also in the military sense. It therefore needs to be viewed in the context of the ongoing attempts to create more “dynamic and assertive” armed forces, to loosen the restrictions on sales and export of weapons, and to cooperate closer with the U.S. by creating a State Secrecy Law and a National Security Council.
For example, collective self-defense is closely linked with weapons sales, joint development of military technology, and logistical training, support and maintenance. It is furthermore closely aligned with the strategic use of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to supply used patrol ships, maritime security equipment, and naval training to befriended nations. It is therefore easy to see how Japan’s new policy can prompt China to further increase its military spending, and eventually exacerbate Asia’s ongoing arms race. What is needed therefore is a proactive Japanese effort to deepen relations with its neighbors.
Economic interdependency in Northeast Asia urgently needs to be matched by an institutionalized political and security dialogue between Japan, China and South Korea, just like functional economic cooperation led to political integration in Europe.
Bart Gaens is senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and specially-appointed associate professor at Osaka University.© Japan Today