Japan Chair Platform: Japan’s Debate over Collective Self-Defense: Time to Move Forward
May 22, 2014
On May 15 an advisory panel submitted a report to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recommending changes in defense policy to exercise the right of collective self-defense or come to the aid of allies under attack.1 Prime Minister Abe announced the government will study the panel’s recommendations and consider this issue carefully in consultation with the Diet (parliament). The government could decide formally as soon as this summer and submit requisite legislation to the Diet in the fall. This proposal for Japan to assume a greater role in regional and global security has prompted a heated debate over how to uphold pacifist principles embedded in the constitution while enhancing Japan’s ability to address a range of new security challenges that place a premium on close coordination and defense cooperation with other countries. It will be important for the Abe government to promote a transparent process for examining the security needs of the nation while avoiding political paralysis that could send a weak signal at a time when the region generally welcomes greater contributions from Japan on security.
Abe established this advisory panel during his last term as prime minister in 2007, and members focused on four specific cases where constraints on defense policy could weaken Japan’s contributions to the U.S.-Japan alliance and global security: defense of U.S. vessels on the high seas; ballistic missile defense, namely whether Japan could intercept a missile possibly headed for the United States; the use of weapons in international peacekeeping operations; and logistical support for other countries participating in said peacekeeping and other activities. A report was submitted in 2008 but shelved until last year when the panel reconvened to examine six additional cases, the potential to reinterpret the constitution, and the legal requirements for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to assume new roles and missions if constraints on defense policy are relaxed. The latest report provides detailed recommendations in each of these areas and suggests that in an increasingly complex regional and global security environment it is in Japan’s interests to assume a greater role in security by exercising the right of collective self-defense.
The advisory panel is not recommending a revision to the constitution but rather suggests the government reinterpret Article IX, which renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. The report notes that in 1959 Japan’s Supreme Court ruled there is nothing in Article IX that denies the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense as stipulated in the UN Charter, and that it is natural for Japan to take measures of self-defense but that they should be limited to the minimum extent necessary. Government legal specialists have repeatedly stipulated, however, that collective self-defense would exceed that “minimum extent” and declared Japan cannot exercise that right, an interpretation that has been maintained to date. But the advisory panel deemed this anachronistic and concluded the government can decide to exercise the right of collective self-defense under the “minimum extent necessary” without revising Article IX. The report also argues that restrictions on “integration in the use of force” with other militaries (ittaika)—a legalistic construct that limits information sharing to activities focused solely on the defense of Japan—should be lifted and that collective security measures of the United Nations, the protection and rescue of Japanese nationals abroad, and responses by the Self-Defense Forces to “infringements that fall short of armed attack,” so-called gray zone conflicts, should not be subject to constitutional restrictions.
Japan’s Cabinet Legislation Bureau will review these recommendations to inform government deliberations, and should the Abe Cabinet decide to reinterpret Article IX it will then have to coordinate closely with the Diet on amendments to legislation governing security policy and the activities of the Self-Defense Forces. Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has entered into preliminary discussions with its partner in the ruling coalition, the Komeito, which has pacifist roots and is fairly cautious on this issue. Komeito president Natsuo Yamaguchi reportedly described the panel report as extremely ambiguous and has expressed concerns about the impact of such a decision on the nation’s security. Opposition parties generally trend negative on this issue, and the lack of consensus promises for a heated parliamentary debate should the Abe government proceed in time for the next legislative session in the fall. (There is some speculation in the Japanese media that the government might postpone parliamentary debate until after unified local elections in spring 2015.) Public opinion is also mixed; a majority either opposes or supports reinterpreting the constitution depending on how the question is asked.2
The United States has welcomed efforts to examine the legal basis for Japan exercising the right of collective self-defense, most recently in a joint statement issued during President Obama’s state visit to Japan last month. Admiral Jonathan Greenert, U.S. chief of naval operations, noted in a recent address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that Japan taking this step would facilitate information sharing and interoperability between the two militaries.3 The timing is also important as the two governments are currently reviewing bilateral guidelines for defense cooperation and could reflect changes in Japanese defense policy in an update due at the end of this year. Bilateral defense ties are strong, but outdated legal interpretations of the constitution in Japan have presented an obstacle to enhancing cooperation on missile defense and other priorities currently informing bilateral defense planning.
The region generally welcomes Japan assuming a greater role in security. The Philippines, which will acquire 10 patrol boats for its Coast Guard through a loan from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and Vietnam are open to maritime cooperation with Japan amid Chinese assertiveness over territorial sovereignty claims. India and Australia have each signed joint security declarations with Japan, and a decision to exercise collective self-defense would likely bolster bilateral security ties with those countries and facilitate multilateral coordination with the United States and other like-minded partners. China has expressed strong opposition based largely on history, but also because enhanced security cooperation with other countries limits China’s capacity to isolate Japan in the region. Historical sensitivities also featured in official reactions from South Korea, but defense experts in Seoul recognize that a more effective U.S.-Japan alliance is critical to planning for contingencies on the Korean peninsula where most U.S. forces would flow through Japan. The transparency promised by the advisory panel report will therefore be critical to alleviating South Korean concerns and at the very least minimizing criticism from Beijing.
Japan’s debate on collective self-defense reflects a healthy examination of policies necessary to protect the nation including the potential for enhanced security cooperation with other countries. Transparency will be critical to socializing the Japanese public and the region on this issue, but a prolonged debate seized by technical matters and devoid of the larger strategic context for reform could merely perpetuate defense policy defined more by constraints than requirements. Promoting transparency without sapping momentum for reform is a challenge that will test the political skills of the Abe government. The timeline for this debate is uncertain, but it will be important to move the process forward and keep pace with rapid changes in the security environment.
Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
1 Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security, “Report of the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security,” May 15, 2014, http://www.kantei.go.jp/jp/singi/anzenhosyou2/dai7/houkoku_en.pdf.
2 A Fujisankei survey published on May 20 found 69 percent of respondents suggesting that the government should exercise the right of collective self-defense either completely or to the minimum extent necessary. A May 19 poll by Mainichi Shimbun found 54 percent of the public generally opposed.
3 Jonathan Greenert, “The Navy’s Rebalance to Asia: Challenges and Opportunities” (presentation at CSIS, Washington, DC, May 15, 2014), http://csis.org/event/navys-rebalance-asia-challenges-and-opportunities.
Japan Chair Platform is published by the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.