Ten Myths About Japan’s Collective Self-Defense Change

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Ten Myths About Japan’s Collective Self-Defense Change

What the critics don’t understand about Japan’s constitutional reinterpretation.

Ten Myths About Japan’s Collective Self-Defense Change
Credit: REUTERS/Yuya Shino

On July 1, the Japanese Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved a proposal to reinterpret Japan’s constitution to end the ban on allowing its military forces to exercise the right of collective self-defense (CSD). The move widens the set of options available to Japan’s military, called the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) which, in turn, has sparked opposition from both domestic and international sources. Much of this opposition, however, fails to appreciate the nuance to the change and therefore, what the change actually engenders. Instead, critics of CSD are basing their opposition on myths about the change. The ten most egregious are debunked below.

Myth 1: The roles and missions of the SDF will fundamentally change.

One major mistake in media coverage of the Cabinet decision on CSD is that it will fundamentally change the role of Japan’s SDF. While the specifics of the change will depend on legislation to be introduced in the Diet beginning this autumn or perhaps next spring, the proposed change essentially makes it possible for the SDF to come to the aid of other allies or like-minded countries if they come under attack. However, three conditions apply that significantly constrain when CSD can actually be exercised. These conditions are: 1) The situation should pose a clear threat to the Japanese state or could fundamentally threaten the Japanese people’s constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; 2) There is no other way to repel the attack and protect Japan and its people; and 3) The use of force is limited to the minimum necessary. As such, while the CSD policy change will allow Japan’s SDF to do something that it has not previously done, the conditions under which it can be exercised are still very restrictive. Japan’s policy will still be based on the decades-old metric of minimal force necessary for exclusively defensive defense (senshu-boei). Moreover, the major role of the SDF in the U.S.-Japan alliance will remain logistical support and defensive missions such as missile defense or anti-submarine warfare. CSD will allow tighter integration with U.S. forces, but not necessarily a fundamental change in the roles and missions each military currently fulfills.

Myth 2: Japan’s military will now join foreign wars.

Many critics believe that the CSD change enables Japan to fight alongside its allies overseas.

Yet Abe himself has explicitly said that the change will not lead to Japan’s involvement in foreign wars. What is overlooked by critics is the language of the change that focuses on protecting Japan and Japanese people’s lives. In other words, CSD is a strictly defensive measure adhering to senshu boei. Similar to Japan’s policy heretofore of not dispatching forces abroad, the CSD change does not give Japan the right to launch wars against other countries. This means that Japan is still prevented from waging wars on foreign soil for the sake of defending other countries – consistent with Article 9 of the Constitution which renounces the right of war to resolve international disputes – unless the situation infringes directly upon Japan’s security.

Myth 3: The SDF will now deploy to the Korean Peninsula during a contingency.

Seoul has demanded that under the exercise of CSD the SDF will not be deployed to the Korean Peninsula during contingencies without consulting the government of the Republic of Korea (ROK). That is entirely consistent with the Japanese government’s interpretation as well. Importantly, Seoul has not taken any stance that would obstruct U.S. cooperation with Japan in the event of contingencies on the peninsula, recognizing how essential the effectiveness of the U.S.-Japan alliance is to the success of the U.S.-ROK alliance.

Myth 4: Abe is gutting the spirit of Japan’s peace constitution.

The CSD change, critics warn, completely and blatantly guts the spirit of Article 9 of Japan’s 1947 Constitution, which states that Japan forever renounces war as its sovereign right and vows not to maintain military forces for that purpose. However, the Japanese Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB) has held since 1954 that Japan has the same right as any other signatory state under Article 51 of the UN Charter to exercise individual and collective self-defense. Until now, collective self-defense was deemed inappropriate because it did not meet the CLB’s definition of “minimal” defense. What has changed is that the Abe Cabinet has determined that limited CSD does meet that threshold given the importance of alliances and key partnership to Japan’s own security and survival and the changing nature of the threat environment and technology. The decision must also be put in the larger context of Abe’s proactive contributions to peace which emphasizes diplomacy, development assistance, and Japan’s traditional non-military instruments of engagement with the world. What Abe has told the Japanese public is that Japan cannot afford to have the U.S.-Japan alliance fail in a crisis because overly stringent Japanese interpretations of minimal defense cause the SDF to withhold necessary military support at a critical juncture.

Myth 5: The decision was made undemocratically without transparency.

Critics have charged Abe of avoiding political input in parliament, avoiding public discussion, and choosing to utilize powers available to the Cabinet that circumvent formal constitutional revision. In fact, the process was remarkably transparent for a Cabinet-decision and will be even more so as the decision is formalized in legislation in the months ahead. Prior to the Cabinet decision, the ruling coalition met 11 times over the course of roughly two months. These meetings were attended by publically elected officials where they discussed various scenarios and possibilities. Because of strong opposition from the New Komeito, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had to search for compromises and drastically curtail the language and specificity that some of the more forward-leaning members of the LDP had hoped for. During this process, the proceedings were reported upon daily by Japan’s media, enabling voters to be fully aware of the discussions. Abe himself held a special press conference where he appealed for the necessity of the change to the Japanese public. It was after this process that the Cabinet decision was reached.

However, it does not end there. Over the next few months, the ruling coalition will have to create the necessary legislation for the changes to take place in related laws, such as the Self-Defense Law and the Japan Coast Guard Law. This legislation will then be submitted to the Diet for public debate. Although the ruling coalition holds majorities in both houses, the legislation will be scrutinized by publicly elected officials, debated, and reported by the media where either more watering-down or more restrictions imposed is likely to occur.

Moreover, Abe’s decision was premised on the basic stance of all Japanese governments since 1954 that Japan does have the right of CSD under the UN Charter. His government’s decision to re-examine what constitutes minimal necessary use of force does not change that basic premise, which was reached under the same established democratic procedures as Abe’s government employed. If Abe’s decision was reached undemocratically, then the earlier interpretation being upheld by his opponents must be considered undemocratic as well. But the fact remains that both decisions proceeded according to the authorities under the Cabinet Law and both will have been implemented after full and open debate in the Diet. The only difference is that Abe employed greater transparency and made major adjustments to reflect the diverse opinions within his Cabinet.

Myth 6: The decision starts a slippery slope for revising the constitution and removing Article 9.

Critics believe that Abe’s push for reinterpretation is only a first step that will lead directly to him revising Japan’s constitution in its entirety, with a specific goal of removing Article 9. This criticism, however, demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding about the legal process in Japan and the differences between reinterpretation and revision. As noted above, previous Cabinets have interpreted the constitution to not exercise the right to CSD. Revision of the constitution is a completely different act that requires majorities in both houses of parliament as well as a public referendum supporting the change. Prime ministers cannot legally revise the constitution without fulfilling these two steps. As such, given the split in the public as well as opposition amongst politicians in both houses, it is unlikely that constitutional revision is possible in the near future. More importantly, the success that Abe has had at CSD should not be linked to a constitutional revision as these are two separate issues with two separate processes.

Myth 7: This is the beginning of Japanese remilitarization.

Chinese critics in particular have accused the Abe administration of embarking on remilitarization, conjuring images from the 1930s. The CSD change fits into this narrative because it is interpreted as drastically loosening restrictions on the SDF, thereby offering further proof that Japan is deviating from a path of peaceful development. Regardless of the fact that Japan today is a deeply rooted democratic country with strong civilian control over a well-trained military and a seven-decade record of peaceful activity, the CSD change does not authorize Japan to launch wars against other countries. The CSD change does, however, expand areas of cooperation for the SDF with its American ally and potentially Australia or others, although these roles and missions will remain severely constrained to circumstances under which Japan is threatened. Importantly, the CSD change does not necessitate an expansion in weaponry or force posture.

Myth 8: This decisions destabilizes the region and endangers regional peace.

China and other critics of Abe argue that the CSD decision is destabilizing the Asia-Pacific region. That would be true if one thought that a more capable and mutually reliant U.S.-Japan alliance endangers regional peace, which is certainly a view held in some quarters. However, the prevailing view is that a robust and credible U.S.-Japan alliance is the answer to the real challenges to peace and stability. Since the end of bipolarity with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Asia-Pacific region has been undergoing profound changes. Large powers like China have been rising, and this has meant a rapid increase in both the quantity and quality of their militaries. China, in particular, has become increasingly assertive in the maritime domain, claiming large swaths of water and territory in the South China Sea, challenging naval vessels of the United States in open waters, and applying increasing pressure on Japan in the East China Sea over a set of islands that Japan administers. North Korea too has become increasingly provocative over the past two decades, not only by developing a clandestine nuclear program, but proliferating missile technology throughout the world. These exogenous destabilizing factors have led Japan to move towards greater integration with the United States, with the decision on CSD forming an essential precursor to revising the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines, which is expected to occur later this year. While CSD does not obligate Japan to do anything that the prime minister or Diet would not decide under their own authorities, the fact that the United States and Japan will be ready to work more closely together in future contingencies is a major force for deterrence, stability, and escalation control.

Myth 9: The Japanese public is overwhelmingly opposed.

The protests, editorials, and one apparent case of self-immolation have been presented by some as evidence of the Japanese public’s overwhelming opposition to Abe’s decision. In general, the Japanese public has shown ambivalence or opposition when asked in polls about removing restraints on the SDF or changing interpretations of the Constitution. This reflects the deep-seated revulsion of war that continues to exist in Japan and concern about Article 9. However, when the public is asked about empowering the SDF to do more in cooperation with the United States – even in scenarios as far away as the Gulf of Hormuz – public support for CSD rises well above 50 percent. This reflects the pragmatic appreciation that Japan must do more to ensure that the U.S.-Japan alliance is an effective deterrent in light of Chinese assertiveness and North Korean proliferation. In short, the Japanese public appears anxious about separating from the past, but equally convinced of the need to prepare for the future. The debates over amendments to as many as 15 existing bills in the fall and winter will hinge on how well Abe portrays his policies in the latter affirmative context.

Myth 10: Asia opposes the change.

It is inaccurate to make blanket statements about regional responses to the change. China has been very critical. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei warned that Abe was fabricating a China threat to serve his political purposes, questioning whether Japan was changing its path of peaceful development, and worried that the CSD change would infringe upon China’s sovereignty and national security. South Korea also expressed concern, with its Foreign Ministry releasing a statement that said Japan should dispel doubts and concerns that stemmed from history, abandon historical revisionism, and behave properly in order to win the confidence of its neighbors. As noted, however, the difference is that Beijing does not want to see a strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance through exercise of CSD, while Seoul recognizes the importance of that alliance despite tense relations with Tokyo over history.

Beyond Northeast Asia, the response has varied from supportive to muted. Australia has been openly supportive of the change, since it will enhance security cooperation with Japan. Looking beyond CSD, in last month’s Two-Plus-Two Joint Statement, Australia also expressed support for Japan participating more actively in UN PKO missions and transferring defense equipment and technology. Philippines President Benigno Aquino, during a recent visit to Japan, expressed his vocal support for the CSD change and advocated closer security ties with Japan. Similarly, Singapore’s Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam also expressed support for the change. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, India, and other South and Southeast Asian nations have been privately supportive, but more cautious in their public stances. These countries all see benefit in a strong U.S.-Japan alliance and/or opportunities to enhance their own security cooperation with Tokyo. While many had their own difficult experiences with Japan in the last century, it is the future and the rise of China that preoccupies their thinking now.

Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. and an Associate Professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Jeffrey W. Hornung is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, HI and an Adjunct Fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at CSIS. The views expressed in this article are their own.