Taking proactive role

Taking proactive role

Taking proactive role

In an extremely controversial and massive shift for the country’s pacifist stance and military posture, Japan took a historic decision on July 1, 2014 that will allow the Japanese government to reinterpret the constitution allowing limited exercise of the right of collective self-defence.

 This will now allow Japan’s self defence forces to engage in combat on foreign soil. Since the founding of the constitution, ‘imposed’ by the US, Japan maintained a defensive mission as per Article 9 of the constitution ̧ which states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes”.

The Abe administration aims to promote proactive contribution to peace based on international cooperation. 

This shift was widely expected. During his first term as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, Abe tried and failed to amend the constitution to ease restrictions on Japan’s military.

This time, rather than attempting to amend the constitution, Abe announced that he would interpret it differently by calling the move “collective self-defence”, which meant that Japan can use the military to help allies under attack even if Japan itself was not directly under attack.

 This meant that for the first time SDF will be permitted to use force in a combat zone. Abe realised that amending any article of the constitution will be difficult as the motion has to pass through both the houses of the Diet by two-third majority, followed by a national referendum and therefore the best option to achieve the same objective was to reinterpret article 9.

Having stayed under the protection of the US security umbrella since the end of World War II and not bothered for defence issues, Japanese people greeted Abe’s decision with protest. Japan’s neighbours such as China and South Korea, victims of Japanese militarism in the past, vehemently protested. 

For the past few years, Tokyo has made incremental advance towards a more militaristic posture in response to the changing security environment in its neighbourhood.

 China’s rise and its assertive posture and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme with frequent threats from Pyongyang have led Japan either to lift or modify various restrictions on its defence establishment, such as the ban on military use of space to cope with the new situation.

 It has also relaxed to allow spy satellites, and loosened restrictions on defence exports as well as relaxing defence industrial cooperation with the United States.

Most recently, Japan has enacted an increase in the defence budget after 11 years of decline and established a National Security Council. Abe has also announced that he will appoint a minister to shepherd laws enabling the SDF to support allies when he reshuffles the cabinet in September. 

Vision of security

Apart from this, he is reaching out to more allies to share his vision of securing security in the Asia-Pacific region. Soon after the cabinet decision, Abe travelled to Australia.

 In his address to Australia’s parliament, he outlined his plans for expanding his nation’s military role to collective self-defence, notwithstanding the fact that it was opposed by a sizable section of the Japanese people but supported by the US. Abe is also going to share his vision of Asian security with the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi when he travels to Japan soon, possibly in August.

 These moves constitute significant steps toward internal balancing as well as a key element of Japan’s external balancing of China. Abe, however, clarified that the SDF will not go into combat in wars like the Gulf War and Iraq. 

There are dangers, however. If Japan undertakes a larger regional security role under the collective self-defence interpretation of the constitution, the involvement of Japan’s military could either exacerbate regional tensions or stabilize relations.

Given that South Korea is already miffed by Abe’s stance on the history and Comfort Women issues, it is unlikely that Seoul will tolerate Japan’s move away from strict self-defence in the interest of balancing a rising China at a time when Sino-South Korea have shown signs of warming demonstrated by president Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Seoul.

 The Japan Times in an editorial observed that Abe’s policies are drawing China and South Korea closer. It is not clear if Abe’s larger strategy will be endorsed by Japan’s allies and friends. 

In the Southeast Asian region, the Philippines and Vietnam are involved in territorial disputes with China. Abe is courting both.

Australia is cautious about the longer-term implications of the growth of Chinese power, and therefore cautious to Abe’s gesture in view of its economic dependence in the Chinese market. This has not deterred Abe to strengthen security relations with all of these countries.

Even Taiwan too is in Japan’s radar. Though Taiwan’s public stance is that there are no major problems in cross-Strait relations, it does not hesitate to enhance ties with Tokyo.

However, unlike in the case of Vietnam and the Philippines, China does not make much noise with Taiwan on the South China Sea though Taiwan too has claims to some portion of the area. Beijing considers Taiwan as its own territory and hopes to incorporate sometime in the future with the mainland. 

Though South Korea remains a critical component of an external balance to Chinese expansionism, the recent bonhomie between Xi and Park worries Japan. To assuage the feelings of the citizens, Abe took pains to explain that Japan’s use of force will be subject to strict conditions, including that the attack on Japan’s ally poses a danger to Japan itself.

 Despite this conditionality, Japanese people continue to perceive Abe has departed from six decades of post-war pacifism and added a new unknown in an unpredictable situation.

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