Enhanced Role for Japan’s Self Defence Forces


Dr Shamshad A Khan assesses the internal and external reactions to the Japanese cabinet’s controversial decision to ease the restriction on Japan to exercise collective self-defence

Japan has reviewed its six-decade-old defence policy that allows its defence forces to aid allies under attack as well as undertake new roles for preserving regional peace. The Japanese cabinet has reinterpreted its ‘Peace Constitution’ to exercise collective-defence. The decision has been welcomed by Japan’s security partners including the US, but it has been opposed by China and South Korea, which remain wary of Japan’s militarisation. Interestingly, the decision has drawn criticism from a section of Japan’s domestic constituencies.

Since 1972, the Japanese government has maintained that being a member of the UN, Japan possesses the right of ‘collective self-defence’ or providing military support to any country to repel aggression, but it cannot exercise that right given the limitation of the Japanese Constitution’s war renouncing clause i.e. Article 9, which spells out that Japan cannot use force to settle international disputes and cannot send its troops overseas. Successive Japanese governments have upheld this interpretation.

For long, a section of the Japanese establishment had pushed for revision of the pacifist clause of the Constitution to extend areas of actions of the Japanese Self Defence Force (SDF), but it failed to muster two-thirds majority in both Houses of the Parliament, a pre-requisite to initiate a Constitutional amendment. Article 96 of the Constitution also stipulates a stringent condition; an amendment to the Constitution would require a majority approval by the public through referendum.

Exercising Collective Self Defence

During the 2012 general election campaign, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a revision of the Constitution. But despite a huge victory in the Lower House, the ruling coalition falls short of two-thirds majority in the Japanese Diet. Opinion polls conducted by various media agencies following the change of government have suggested that the majority of Japanese remain wary of Abe’s interpretation of the Constitution, which allows the state to go beyond ‘self-defence’. In view of the prevailing domestic situation, Abe was left with no option other than using the cabinet decision to bring out legislation to achieve his political ambition. After several rounds of deliberations, on July 1, the Japanese cabinet decided that Japan would be allowed to exercise the right of ‘collective self-defence’ under the following circumstances:

(a) When an armed attack takes place against a foreign country with which Japan has close relations and the country’s existence is threatened, and there is a ‘clear danger’ that the people’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will be fundamentally undermined;

(b) When there are no other appropriate measures to ensure the country’s existence and protect the people;

(c) When the use of force is kept to the minimum necessary.

Neighbours React

The three principles adopted by the Japanese government will certainly boost Japan’s defence capability and will help it remove the tag of a ‘security rider’ on the US. However, the decision has generated an angry response from Japan’s immediate neighbours. China criticised Japan for ‘deliberately fabricating the China threat theory’ to serve its ‘domestic political purpose.’ Chinese Foreign Ministry warned that by re-interpreting the peace Constitution, Japan ‘must not infringe upon China’s sovereignty and national security nor undermine regional peace and stability.’ Similarly, South Korea asked Japan to maintain the spirit of its Constitution despite reinterpreting the supreme legal document. It urged Japan to be ‘transparent in its efforts’ and not ‘undermine regional peace and stability.’

Public Opposition

A section of Japanese remain opposed to the move. The day Abe announced the decision; sporadic protests broke out in different parts of the country, and even outside the prime minister’s residence. A July 16 opinion survey conducted by Jiji Press suggested that public approval of the Abe cabinet plummeted to 44 percent, down six percent from the previous survey. Public approval has been a barometer to judge government policy in Japan and analysts attribute sagging approval ratings to the controversial decision to ease the restriction on Japan to exercise collective self-defence. People believe that constitutional reinterpretation could eventually allow Japan to wage war and return to the pre-war military adventurism that resulted in their economic devastation.

Prime Minister Abe was fully aware of the public opposition to the move, but took this decision to achieve twin goals: first, to send a signal to regional countries of his determination to enhance the deterrence power of Japan in the wake of the territorial stand-off with China and China’s assertion in the East and South China Seas and second, to further strengthen the US-Japan security alliance, thereby maintaining Japan’s position as a key US ally in the region.

Making the US-Japan Alliance More Effective

Japan has been most forthcoming to play a proactive role in the US pivot or rebalance to Asia. Japan and the US have agreed to review the 1997 US-Japan defence guidelines. The two countries, which through regular interactions have been assessing the regional security situation, intend to finalise the revision by the end of this year to reflect the realities of the emerging security situation in the upcoming guidelines. Abe is keen to give Japanese SDF a bigger role in the US-Japan security framework in East Asia. Following the decision to exercise ‘collective self-defence’, Japanese troops can defend US warships near Japanese waters, can intercept missiles targeted at the US, protect peacekeepers abroad, and undertake minesweeping activities. By broadening the duties of the Japanese SDF in the US-Japan security alliance, Abe wants to dampen US’s criticism about Japan not playing its due role in regional security. US approval for Abe’s decision was evident from US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel’s statement that the decision will ‘enable the Self-Defence Forces to engage in a wider range of operations and make the US-Japan alliance even more effective.’ No doubt, Abe has been successful in conveying to the US that Japan is its reliable ally and is ready to shoulder responsibilities as expected by the US in its ‘pivot to Asia’.

It must be noted that the decision to change the pacifist character of Japanese security policy has always been unpopular domestically. The Japanese were on the streets when Japan revised the US-Japan security treaty in 1960; they opposed despatch of troops for Peacekeeping Operations and resisted the recent move of easing restrictions on sale of arms and arms-related technologies abroad. But the gradual acceptance of government decisions in the past is indicative of the fact that they may accept this decision with the passage of time. However, in the near future, a tussle between the people and the Japanese establishment is likely to ensue over this controversial decision.

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Dr Shamshad A Khan

Dr Shamshad A Khan is Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. All views are personal.

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