In a potential game-changer for geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific, Japan’s cabinet approved a landmark change in long-standing policy which allows its armed forced to fight overseas. By reinterpreting the constitution to allow for “collective security,” the Japanese cabinet has stepped away from the post-World War II renunciation of war and has, therefore, expanded its foreign policy option. The focus on collective security means that Japan’s military –- Self-Defence Forces –- could come to the aid of allies even if Japan itself isn’t attacked.
Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, written by the occupying American forces after Japan’s surrender, states that Japan renounces the use of force to resolve conflicts, except in the cases of self-defence.
“The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes… land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”
It was recently reported that Article 9 was being proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Through the backdoor
The new reinterpreting of “collective security,” now makes it possible for Japan to defend allies under attack. The decision will also change the nature of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, giving them more scope for engagement with hostile forces. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been a strong supporter of this change, arguing that the changing security environment in the region necessitated it.
“The state of the world surrounding Japan is growing increasingly severe. To prepare for every possible scenario, it is necessary to take seamless legislative measures so we can protect the lives and peace of our people,” Mr. Abe said in a news conference on July 1.
Regardless of Mr Abe’s intent, changing the constitution takes a lot of political will and energy. It requires two-third approval in both houses of the Diet and a majority of votes in a nationwide referendum, a task Abe knew he would probably fail at. So in a shrewd move, the nationalist prime minister simply reinterpreted the law saving him the trouble of building the consensus needed in parliament, as well as the among the people.
The decision has attracted protests from those who hold firm to Japan’s post-war pacifist identity. Thousands demonstrated in front of the prime minister’s office in Tokyo, on June 30, demanding that the changes be scrapped. Earlier, a protester had set himself on fire in protest against the proposed law. Many are also bothered about the way the changes have been brought about –- they claim it undermines Japans democracy.
Supporters of the change point out that the reinterpretation only expands Japan’s military options by ending its ban on “collective self-defense,” and that it will continue to be constitutionally barred from using force to solve international disputes.
However, opponents maintain this is the first step towards militarisation.
The China Factor?
Some experts believe that the move is a reaction to China’s growing assertiveness in the region. Recently, China and Japan were embroiled in a bitter territorial dispute over a group of islands, known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China.
Another cause of concern for Mr Abe is the continued threat posed by a nuclear- armed North Korea. Considered as an ally of China, Japan is increasingly wary of its constant missile launches.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei voiced Beijing’s opposition. It has previously accused Mr. Abe of “remilitarising” Japan.
“Beijing opposes Japan’s act of hyping the China threat,” he said, adding that that this change in policy “raises doubts about Japan’s approach to peaceful development.”
South Korea, a traditional US ally in the region, is also worried by the revision in the security policy. The South Korean foreign ministry stated, “When it comes to Japan’s security discussion, the Japanese government should dispel doubts and concerns stemming from history, abandon historical revisionism and behave properly in a bid to win confidence from its neighbouring countries.”
However, some experts feel that the idea of remilitarisation is loaded with history and political connotations. “Remilitarisation has a political connotation. North Korea, South Korea, and China keep talking about remilitarisation because of historic reasons, but this decision has been made focused on the national interest of Japan. All countries that have an armed force is militarised; China is militarised, India is militarised, why not Japan?” says Dr. Shrikant Kondapalli, a well-known China expert at the Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The US, which has a security alliance with Japan, is increasingly concerned about the growing Chinese clout in the region and has welcomed the move. The US has been vocal in asking Japan to overhaul Article 9 in order to save the US-Japan alliance. However, the US is also caught in a bind, say experts, whereby it has to pacify South Korean fears while acknowledging the possible assistance from Japan.
What it means for India-Japan relations
Not much, argue some experts. “The collective defence is first, in the short term and medium term, to be carried out in Japan’s vicinity. The East China Sea, the South China Sea are its immediate concerns. This collective defence is not applicable to the Arabian Sea or the Bay of Bengal where India has a more direct presence”, says Kondapalli. However, he concedes that if the issue were raised during the Indian prime minister’s upcoming visit to Japan, “there is scope for a long-term arrangement with India.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to travel to Japan next month, an important trip that is going to pitch bilateral ties into a higher trajectory. India is looking to buy the dual-use amphibious aircraft from Japan, but the negotiations have not been concluded yet.
The Japanese parliament is yet to clear legal barriers to the reinterpretation by revising more than a dozen laws. Yet, with Mr. Abe’s party’s comfortable majority in both houses that job promises to be easy.
With this move, Mr. Shinzo Abe has taken yet another step to make Japan a confident, secure and normal nation. However, in the process he has disturbed deeply embedded pacifist values in Japan, as well as assumed regional security arrangements.
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