Why China Should Not Worry About Japan’s New Security Laws

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Why China Should Not Worry About Japan’s New Security Laws

Little will change (for now).

Why China Should Not Worry About Japan’s New Security Laws
Credit: Flickr/U.S. Army

Two contentious security laws went into effect this Tuesday in Japan. The laws were passed six months ago by the Upper House of the Japanese Diet–Japan’s parliament–based on a July 2014 Cabinet resolution reinterpreting article 9 of Japan’s pacifist constitution. The laws lift a decades-old, self-imposed ban on collective self-defense. Tokyo is now allowed to defend allies, even when the country is not under attack itself.

The new so-called “Permanent International Peace Support Law” and the “Legislation for Peace and Security”–the former facilitating the deployment of  Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) logistical support assets abroad, the latter providing the legal foundation for the reinterpretation of the constitution based on the amendment of ten existing laws—have caused some states (e.g., China and South Korea) as well as the Japanese public to openly fear a resurgence of militarism in the country.

However, as I explained in a piece for BBC News last year:

Despite much domestic and international hysteria that Japan could now be drawn into foreign conflicts, and potentially even launch a war, closer scrutiny reveals it still has a long way to go to cast off its pacific post-War legacy.

For one thing, under the new legislation, the JSDF can only come to the aid of an ally under three conditions:

  • Japan’s survival is at stake
  • all other non-military options have been exhausted
  • the use of force is limited to the minimum necessary to deter aggression

In addition, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly noted that the reinterpretation does not even apply to UN Security Council-sanctioned peace enforcement operations that would involve the JSDF actually engaging in combat, but is rather confined to logistical support activities, since the use of force outside self-defense remains unconstitutional.

The only possible exception is a hypothetical blockade of the Strait of Hormuz–around eighty percent of Japan’s crude oil shipment pass through there–with undersea mines, which would threaten the country’s existence, according to Shinzo Abe. However, even there, the JSDF would only be deployed in passive mine sweeping operations and not in actual combat.

Shinzo Abe said this week that the implementation of the new law is a moment of “historic importance that makes peace and security of our country even more secure” and “upgrades our deterrence and enables the nation to proactively contribute more than ever to peace and stability of regional and international communities,” The Japan Times reports.

“The quality of Japan-U.S. alliance has reached the point where we can defend each other from now on,” Abe further noted. “Our ties have become much stronger.”

Yet, in reality, these changes will have a negligible impact in the field for now. For example, Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said last week that the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force will not be available immediately to offer protection to U.S. warships until the details have been worked out. (Both countries agreed to stronger military cooperation in the revised Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation Guidelines of April 2015.)

Also, while Japanese UN peacekeepers in Sudan will now be allowed to engage in “normal” military security operations like patrolling and inspecting vehicles at checkpoints, and come to the rescue of other UN peacekeeping troops engaged in a fire fight (and rescue civilians in danger), the rules of engagement will, in all likelihood, not change until at least the fall of 2016, according to Nakatani, given that troops cannot be trained before the next six-month rotation.

Despite the hype surrounding Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to “normalize” Tokyo’s defense policy and military posture, Japan will continue to face more restraints than any other major power in this region for four reasons. First, as outlined above, in spite of recently passed legislation, severe legal restrictions on the activities of the JSDF abroad remain. Second, Japan’s defense spending is relatively low compared to its GDP and will not likely rise in the future (See: “Japan Approves Record Defense Budget”).

Third, Japan’s defense industry, despite the lifting of an export ban, continues to be plagued by inefficiencies making it highly unlikely that the JSDF will have the material means to substantially expand in size over the next decade. Fourth, the U.S.-Japan alliance–the cornerstone of Japan’s defense policy–is by no means as strong as Tokyo and Washington would want their adversaries to believe with major Japanese restrictions on the use of force remaining in place.

To think that Japan will fight alongside others in a 1991 Gulf War scenario, even with the blessing of the UN Security Council, let alone in other non-UN sanctioned wars, remains far-fetched at best.