Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken office in Winter 2012, his economic recovery plan, known as ‘Abenomics’, has attracted the worldwide attention for possibly reviving Japan’s long-stagnated economy. There is, however, another aspect of Abe’s policy that drew a lot of attention from other countries, especially its neighbors: its changing defense policy.
The government has announced that it would review the official position on Japan’s right of ‘collective self-defense’, or aiding an ally under attack. The Japanese government had been stating that Japan has the right of ‘collective self-defense,’ but cannot exert it because of the Constitution that prohibits the country from using its force to solve international conflicts. Thus, Japan has strictly restricted its use of force to the individual self-defense. However, Abe is now trying to change the official position, not the Constitution itself, so that Japan can assist other countries in case of an attack.
Although the U.S., Japan’s principal ally, and other western countries such as Britain and Australia welcome the debate, there have been some concerns and criticism by its neighbors. China openly denounced the reviewing the right of collective self-defense as the rise of Japan’s militarism, and South Korea also expressed concerns about the change of Japan’s policy.
But can this debate really mean that Japan is trying to become a ‘militaristic’ state, seeking to dominate East Asia like it did during World War II? Let’s think about it.
The primary reason of the debate is to facilitate Japan’s effective cooperation with other nations, which is currently hindered by the self-imposed ban on collective self-defense. For example, Japanese Self-Defense Forces had been deployed in Iraq from 2003 until 2009 for helping reconstruct the nation’s infrastructure with foreign military units or civilians. The problem is, even if the foreign military or civilians had been attacked, JSDF could not have saved or even tried to help them! The SDF has no legal ground to exert its force to defend the foreign military or units. Fortunately, that kind of attack did not happen there. But if it did, how would the world have seen Japan, abandoning fellow military or civilians?
Another example is that if missiles are launched toward the U.S., Japan cannot counter them with its own missile defense systems, even if it is capable of doing so. Again, what does the alliance mean if a country deliberately chooses not to defend the allied country?
Now Abe is trying to remedy such inappropriate situation. After all, every country in the United Nation possesses the right of ‘collective self-defense’. What Japan’s trying to do is just to become a ‘normal’ country that can defend allied or friendly nations under attack.
In June, the Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera stated at the Shangri-La Dialogue that the reason as to why Japan is reviewing the defense policy is to “play a responsible role as a member of the international community” and also to “make a more proactive and creative contribution toward regional stability.” Enhancing the defense cooperation and stability among East Asian countries is one of the few things that every country seems to agree on. In order for Japan to contribute to the defense cooperation and regional security, it is crucially important to improve its defense policy so that Japan would be able to act responsibly in case of the contingency involving other nations.
At the same time, officials in Japan denied that embracing collective self-defense would involve Japan in unnecessary wars that are nothing to do with its national interest. They state that Japan would restrict the exertion of collective self-defense to the ‘minimal necessary’ for their national interest, and Shigeru Ishiba, the Secretary General of Liberal Democratic Party, said in September that Japan going to war alongside the U.S. on ‘the other end of the world’ would not happen.
Meanwhile, I admit that there are some concerns in Abe’s approach on changing the view of collective self-defense. First, there should be some kind of legislation for changing the official position. Japan’s government used to state officially that Japan has a right of collective self-defense, but cannot exert it. If the government changes its official position without any legal bases, it might set a precedent that government can change the interpretation of law without consulting the Diet or the Japanese people. Such arbitrariness will be likely to cause anxiety both within Japan and other countries. Abe announced at the budget committee on October 22nd that the government needs to change a legislation to make such change of policy, which is a good sign. But we need to keep a close eye on the process.
Second, the process of the change should be opened to the public eye internationally as well as domestically. Of course, a country’s defense policy should ultimately be decided according to that country’s national interest, but at the same time it should not cause unnecessary doubt or apprehension among other nations. Being transparent about when and to what extent Japan would exert the right of collective self-defense is essential.
Since Abe has become the prime minister, Japan’s defense policy has surely been more actively discussed than before. While it is important to pay attention to what is changing, to consider why it is changing also is equally important. I certainly hope that Japan will play a responsible role in being transparent about the content and process of the defense policy revision, as well as in contributing to regional security.