Japan Takes a Step Forward on Defense Policy Reform

On July 1 the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced defense policy reforms, including measures that would allow Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) to exercise the right of collective self-defense and aid allies under attack. The cabinet decision is a significant step in the evolution of Japanese defense policy and involves a revised interpretation of the Japanese Constitution by the Cabinet Legal Bureau in order to enhance defense cooperation with the United States and other like-minded countries for the purposes of Japan’s own national security.  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the policy in a press conference and stressed the importance of deterrence in response to a rapidly changing security environment, but also noted that the exercise of collective self-defense would be limited to the minimum level necessary consistent with longstanding principles on the use of force. The government is expected to submit requisite legislation to the Diet (parliament) for deliberation during the next legislative session scheduled for this fall.

Q1: What is in the new policy?

: The Abe Cabinet decision is based on a review of the legal basis for security policy and informed by the findings of an advisory panel submitted to the government in May 2014. The July 1 Cabinet decision notes the need to bolster Japan’s defense capabilities and introduces initiatives under three main categories: responses to infringements in so-called “gray zone” areas that fall short of armed attack; furthering contributions to international peace and security; and measures for self-defense permitted under Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. Article 9 renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and prohibits the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes, but previous governments have reinterpreted that clause to allow the limited use of force for self-defense and revise security policy incrementally as developments warranted. The Abe Cabinet decision mirrors the interpretations of previous administrations in stating that measures of self-defense are permitted under Article 9 when an armed attack against Japan occurs, there is no other means available to repel an attack and ensure Japan’s security, and the use of force is limited to the minimum extent necessary. Though Japan has an inherent right to collective self-defense under international law (and specifically the UN Charter), legal specialists in the government have heretofore rejected that right as exceeding the “minimum extent necessary.” Rebutting this long held view, the Abe cabinet concluded that measures of collective self-defense are also permitted when an attack on a country in a close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result threatens Japan’s security and the people’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as prescribed elsewhere in the constitution. This represents a new interpretation of Article 9 recommended by the advisory panel, though the details of this policy are subject to debate in the Diet. The government will stipulate in draft legislation that in principle prior approval of the Diet will be required to exercise collective self-defense in line with existing procedures for other SDF operations.

Q2: How significant is this development?

A2: The announcement indicates a change in Japanese strategic culture. The current security policy debate centered on the importance of deterrence and increased cooperation with other partners in response to new security challenges contrasts sharply with deliberations at the outset of the Cold War when many Japanese strategists feared the bilateral security treaty with the United States would entrap Japan in foreign wars. At that time, Article 9 was used by many political leaders as an obstruction against entrapment in Cold War conflicts and insurance that Japan could focus on economic recovery. Defense policy has evolved gradually since then from an exclusive focus on the defense of Japan to a range of other activities including limited participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations, refueling operations during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the dispatch of SDF personnel for reconstruction activities in Iraq, and most recently participation in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. These incremental changes in the roles of the SDF took place against the backdrop of growing security threats from China and North Korea, generational change within Japan, and questions about whether economic growth alone was a sufficient guarantor of national security. This announcement on collective self-defense suggests a shift toward security interdependence with the United States and other like-minded states, and has therefore been generally welcomed in Washington and by countries like Australia and India.

However, the new policy has also generated some controversy. Within Japan some lawmakers have criticized the Cabinet decision as a departure from pacifist principles that have anchored Japanese foreign policy since World War II. The cabinet decision was met with public demonstrations echoing those sentiments and opinion polls on collective self-defense are also mixed. Surveys that simply reference collective self-defense reveal less support than those that frame the issue in the context of strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance, which is widely recognized as the foundation of Japanese defense policy. 

Q3: What does this mean for the United States?

A3: The U.S. government welcomed this decision as a means to enhance Japan’s role in the U.S.-Japan alliance. The 2014 Department of Defense Quadrennial Defense Review calls on security partners to play greater roles in advancing mutual security interests.  In addition, U.S. national security officials generally see the July 1 Cabinet decision as important context for new bilateral defense guidelines due by the end of this year.  U.S. media coverage of collective self-defense has focused mainly on the potential for Japan to expand the parameters for the use of force, but perhaps more significant in the context of the U.S.-Japan alliance is the prospect for improved information sharing, as Admiral Jonathan Greenert, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, recently noted in remarks at CSIS. The new Cabinet decision should lead to looser restrictions on JSDF “integration in the use of force” with other militaries –first and foremost the U.S. military – which would enhance the ability of the United States and Japan to prepare common operating pictures, cueing, exercises and operational plans for future contingencies. Ultimately, the decision of whether or not Japan exercises the right of collective self-defense in a contingency will be decided by the Prime Minister in accordance with Japan’s democratic constitutional procedures, but the fact that U.S. and Japanese forces will be better integrated and ready to act in advance of that decision will reinforce alliance solidarity and enhance deterrence and stability. 

Q4: How have other countries reacted?

A4: China has criticized the July 1 Cabinet decision and questioned whether Japan would stick to its pacifist principles, a reflection of China’s strategic interests, national identity, and historical memory towards Japan. The South Korean government has also referenced concerns over history and stressed that Tokyo must request explicit consent from Seoul if it exercises the right of collective self-defense in emergency situations on the Korean Peninsula. However, Korean national security professionals generally recognize that the new policy is aimed at strengthening the effectiveness of the U.S.-Japan alliance, which is critical to the security of the Republic of Korea itself. Other countries in the region such as Australia and the Philippines have endorsed Japan’s desire to take this step and contribute more to regional security. In the July 1 announcement, the Japanese government acknowledged the importance of transparency in defense policy and gaining the understanding of the region.      

Q5: What happens next?

A5: The Abe government will consult formally with the Diet and according to media reports could recommend amending as many as 15 pieces of legislation to implement this policy.  Lawmakers will examine the issue thoroughly in the next session this fall and will likely pass most of the relevant legislation by the end of the year since the ruling coalition controls both houses of the Diet. However, key voices within the ruling coalition have argued for a slower legislative process that could stretch into next year. For his part, Prime Minister Abe has expressed his intention to move forward as part of his overall desire to see Japan become a “proactive contributor to peace.”         

Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia and holds the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Nicholas Szechenyi is deputy director and senior fellow at the Japan Chair at CSIS.

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