In Japan a debate over self-defense

Role as alliance partner restricted by post WWII constitutional clause that outlaws it from having army, navy or air force, or exercising force in any international dispute.

In Japan a debate over self-defense

World Bulletin/News Desk

Japan is currently embroiled in a domestic argument over whether it can legally act as an alliance partner with the United States, or any other country with which it has a close relationship and common security concerns.

It is an only-in-Japan kind of debate, since it is one of the only major players in the world that has as part of its constitution a clause - the famous post World War II Article 9 -which outlaws the country from having any army, navy or air force or exercising force in any international dispute.

Notwithstanding the charter, Japan has gradually developed a formidable armed force, known euphemistically as the “Self-Defense Forces,” but their operations remain constrained by a legal framework that imposes some of the tightest restrictions on the military of any country.

Since 1991, Japan has participated in various peacekeeping missions abroad. It also takes part in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia. However, if a neighboring peacekeeping force from another nation - say Norway - came under attack, Japan would be legally constrained from coming to their rescue.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to change this. For one thing it comports with his own personal desire to make Japan a “normal nation” - one that can exert force like any other. But it also comes from a heightened sense of danger from North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to China’s territorial claims.

Underscoring the concern was a recent incident in which China scrambled two advanced fighter jets to fly within 164 feet (50 meters) of two unarmed Japanese patrol aircraft that were monitoring a joint China-Russia fleet exercise near the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu islands in the East China Sea. Beijing brushed off Tokyo's protests.

Abe wants his cabinet to declare by the end of parliament session in late June that so-called “collective self-defense” - that is aiding an ally - conforms with the constitution. He wants this done soon so it can form part of the negotiations with the U.S. in developing a new understanding of their respective roles in the defense of Japan - the first time these guidelines have been revised in 20 years.

In his keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue on security matters last weekend in Singapore, Abe said “it was incumbent on us in Japan to reconstruct the legal basis pertinent to the right of collective self-defense.” 

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel publicly backed Abe. “We support Japan’s new effort,” he said.

Most of the American security establishment supports collective defense by Japan and is not overly concerned about what obstacles Abe has to navigate to get there. President Barack Obama himself issued a statement during his April visit to Japan supporting Abe’s proposed changes.

But Abe may have trouble getting his way. Public opinion polls show a public evenly split on the overall issue with a still strong pacifistic element in the electorate that worries that any change will send Japan down a slippery slope towards the militarized Japanese state of the 1930-40s.

On the other hand, the same polls show broader support when asked about specific contingencies, such as whether a Japanese warship can legally come to the aid of an American ship in danger by an attack of North Korean patrol boats, for example.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has a commanding majority in parliament as a result of the party’s victory in the 2012 general election, but it is a curious position where the “loyal opposition” is coming not from the opposition parties themselves but from within the governing coalition itself.

The LDP is allied with New Komeito, the political arm of a Japanese Buddhist sect that has strong pacifistic tendencies. Abe’s whole political efforts for the present are directed at trying to overcome the Komeito party’s scruples over collective self-defense, which the party leaders mainly oppose.

If he pushes ahead without making major concessions to Komeito’s concerns, it is possible that the Buddhist party might leave the coalition. Abe is loath to let that happen. It is partly for purely practical terms, as the Komeito alliance helps the LDP win elections, but also fears that it might imperil its other initiatives to strengthen the economy, known as “Abenomics.”

The premier knows from his previous short stint in office - 2006-2007 - that he can be politically punished if he is perceived as being more interested in promoting his own pet security ideas than he is in fixing the economy and other issues that the public thinks more directly impacts their livelihoods.

So for now, the prime minister has had to modify his goals and adopt a strategy of listing specific examples calling for the use of collective self-defense - such as intercepting a North Korean ballistic missile aimed at U.S. assets or territory - that the Komeito may find acceptable.

Some opposition also comes from those - including some in Abe’s own party - who believe that any such significant change to the constitution should be made by amendment, not by the unilateral decision of a cabinet that may be in office for only a few years.

Japan’s constitution - written by American occupiers in 1946 - has never been amended because no party has ever had the necessary two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament to refer an amendment to a national referendum.  

Despite Abe’s commanding majority - even without Komeito - in the lower house, it doesn't have the votes in the upper chamber.


Last Mod: 08 Haziran 2014, 10:00
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