The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved on July 1 a reinterpretation of the Japanese Constitution, extending the scope of the right to self-defense to include the defense of an ally under attack. Past governments have maintained that Japan possessed the right to collective self-defense under international law, more specifically under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, but that Article 9 of its pacific Constitution prevented the country from exercising this right because doing so would go beyond the minimum necessary for national defense.
Assuming that the set of bills related to Japan’s defense policy to be submitted to the Diet next year is approved, the new government interpretation enables Japan to use the Self-Defense Forces if “the country’s existence is threatened, and there are clear dangers that the people’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would be overturned” due to an armed attack on Japan or “countries with close ties.” The two other conditions for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense are the lack of “other appropriate means” and the obligation to keep the use of armed forces to the minimum required to guarantee Japan’s security.
One day after the constitutional reinterpretation was approved the Asahi Shimbun stated that July 1, 2014, will remain the “darkest day in the history of Japan’s constitutionalism.” Certainly democratic values seem to be under considerable pressure in Japan. Less than two months after having declared his intention to reinterpret the Constitution, Abe put his plan into action, paying scant attention to an important segment of the population, civil society, or the political opposition. According to a poll conducted by Kyodo News after the reinterpretation, 54.4 percent opposed the change of interpretation and only 34.6 percent supported it, while the disapproval rate of the government reached 40 percent for the first time since Abe came back to premiership in December 2012.
In addition to domestic concerns, one may wonder at the implications of the reinterpretation for Japan’s security policy and on regional dynamics. It is argued below that these implications are going to be very important as Japan has recovered the necessary legal flexibility to pursue meaningful international cooperation in military and defense-related affairs. This buttresses the argument that the recent constitutional reinterpretation, with its extensive repercussions for the country, should not be undertaken without amending of the Constitution, and thus without having consulted the population beforehand through a national referendum.
The first consequence for Japan’s security policy and for the regional security architecture, which also reflects one of the main objectives of the Abe Cabinet in reinterpreting the Constitution, is a greater role for Japan in the alliance with the United States. The latter has long been prodding Japan to share the burden of its own defense, a stance that did not weaken following the Obama Administration’s “rebalancing” strategy. For its part, Tokyo fears that U.S. economic ties with and subsequent deference to China may eventually undermine its security commitments towards Japan. In taking a proactive role inside the alliance, Japan can show that it is a meaningful ally and respond to Washington’s demands.
The United States and Japan are planning to revise the defense cooperation guidelines at the basis of their alliance and specify the respective role of their military establishments before the end of the year. Though it is difficult to anticipate the outcome of this process, scenarios for the use of Japanese armed forces discussed by representatives of both the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito ahead of the constitutional reinterpretation provide some insights. These included protecting American warships under attack by a third country near Japan, the use of coercion to inspect vessels suspected of carrying weapons to a country attacking the United States, and intercepting missiles aimed at the United States’ home territory or insular possessions in the Pacific.
Bilateral security cooperation between Japan and the United States is thus likely to strengthen in the near future. More balanced responsibilities and a more robust relationship between the two countries inside the alliance will reinforce an already key element of the regional security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region.
The possibility for Japan of exercising the right to collective self-defense will also help it engage in security and defense cooperation with countries sharing similar security concerns. The constitutional reinterpretation provides for the use of collective self-defense to rescue “countries with close ties,” a vaguely worded term that leaves much room for interpretation to Japanese decision-makers regarding which countries could be provided with help. Similarly, the conditions that Japan’s existence be threatened and that there are clear dangers to people’s rights are left to interpretation. For example, Abe has expressed willingness to take part in international minesweeping operations in the Strait of Hormuz under the United Nations collective security framework, claiming that the fact that mines be laid down in a strait used by 80 percent of the tankers supplying Japan with oil constitutes a clear threat. Though discussions with the New Komeito on collective security ultimately failed to reach an agreement, this shows that the margin of maneuver for the implementation of collective self-defense is likely to be important.
This flexibility regarding the use of collective self-defense may have the effect of increasing the value of Japan as a potential ally from the perspective of several countries in the region, something it has lacked since the end of the Second World War. Though any cooperation on security issues with South Korea will continue to face major domestic challenges in both countries, Japan will certainly get closer to potential partners such as the Philippines and Australia, countries that already have security arrangements with the United States. The probability of a triangulation of bilateral security arrangements will increase. Southeast Asian countries subjected to the growing assertiveness of China at sea, like Vietnam, are also likely candidates for enhanced security cooperation with Japan. In other words, the regional security architecture could be fundamentally redrawn in the coming years, transforming the American-led hub-and-spoke network of alliances into a more multipolar framework.
Japan still has a long way to go before it will be able to provide security guarantees under collective self-defense to these countries. Opposition both foreign and domestic will act as stumbling blocks. However, the Abe Cabinet has been active on two other fronts to improve Japan’s attractiveness as a potential partner in security affairs, which allow Japan to engage in security cooperation with other countries at a lower level of intensity than in the case of collective self-defense.
On April 1, the Cabinet took the significant decision to remove an embargo (in place for almost half a century) on arms exports. Originally, this embargo had prevented Japan from selling weapons to communist countries, countries involved in international conflicts, and countries subjected to an embargo under a resolution of the United Nations. These three principles were turned into a virtual blanket ban in 1976. The embargo was softened in 2011 to allow Japan to engage in the joint development and production of weapons with the United States. In April this year, the principles were removed entirely and replaced with a ban on arms exports to countries in conflict and exports that would be in violation of UN resolutions.
Consequently, Japan is today able to transfer military assets and technology to defense partners and to jointly develop weapon systems. This will inevitably lead to deeper security relations and greater interoperability between the Self-Defense Forces and the armed forces of other countries. Only two days after the revision of the arms embargo was announced, the Defense Ministry proposed that Japan host a regional maintenance hub for the F-35 jet fighters that are being acquired by Japan, the United States, Australia, and South Korea, and that have Taiwan and Singapore on their list of potential buyers. On July 8, Japan and Australia signed an agreement on the transfer of defense equipment and technology, with the former’s submarines technology at the center of the latter’s interests. Japan has also expressed willingness to engage in the same kind of cooperation with Vietnam and the Philippines.
Another ongoing revision pursued by the Abe Cabinet concerns the charter of the official development assistance (ODA), established in 1992 and originally focused on infrastructure development and poverty reduction. The objective of the revision is to allow the Japanese government to use part of the some $10 billion budget for overseas development assistance (ODA) it has at its disposal every year to train and assist foreign armed forces. Though directed towards aid to noncombat operations, such as military-led disaster relief, it would authorize Japan to provide training and ships for coast guard operations, a very interesting aspect of ODA for countries engulfed in growing tensions with China at sea such as Vietnam and the Philippines. The revision of the ODA charter, expected to be completed by the end of the year, is another dimension of Japan’s security policy that would increase its attractiveness as a defense partner and allow the country to engage with others in low-intensity security cooperation.
It is worth noting that the success of Abe’s initiatives to revise the several legal components related to the use of armed forces and security cooperation mentioned above have been made possible by the use of the growing Chinese threat as a justification. That the government coalition possesses a majority in both chambers of the Diet is of course an important factor to take into account, because it allows Abe to forcefully push forwards with his plans. The China factor cannot be dismissed, however. Such a comprehensive reform of Japan’s defense posture would not have been possible if North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs were the only security challenges Japan had to face. The multipolar framework of security arrangements and alliances in the Asia-Pacific region that is expected to emerge in the next few years will inevitably be modeled around and politically justified by the threat represented by China.
This means that the degree of security cooperation between Japan and countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia will depend on the acuity with which the Chinese threat is perceived in these countries. China’s current behavior in the China Seas and its lack of transparency in military affairs will lead to the development or reinforcement of security cooperation between Japan and these countries in domains such as joint weapons system development and arms export, intelligence sharing, and joint military training. Should China’s assertiveness and aggressiveness at sea grow, security cooperation could gradually deepen and reach the point where the provision of collective self-defense by Japan is granted to countries other than the United States.
The recent constitutional reinterpretation and other initiatives related to Japan’s defense posture undertaken by the Abe Cabinet thus open the door to a greater role for Japan in the regional security architecture. Japan will soon possess all the legal features it needs regarding the use of armed forces and security cooperation to flexibly adapt to the evolving constraints imposed by its regional and international environments. In other words, Japan’s domestic legal framework will no longer prevent it from modifying its foreign policy as it pertains to security and defense affairs to suit systemic requirements. Although Japanese public opinion will remain a restraining factor when it comes to high-intensity security cooperation, this new development is a worrying sign in view of the persistent historical, political and territorial tensions in the region.
Lionel Pierre Fatton is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Sciences Po Paris, and a correspondent for the Japanese news agency Kyodo News at the United Nations Geneva headquarters.