With North Korea warning to carry out a nuclear test “at any time and at any location”, tensions on the Korean Peninsula continue to build up. Either a long-range missile launch or a sixth nuclear test is enough fodder for fuelling jitters in the region. This is in response to Washington’s refusal to rule out a military strike, which is why Pyongyang is bolstering its “pre-emptive nuclear attack” capabilities. Pyongyang has insisted that Washington first scrap its hostile policies before it could expect any concession from Pyongyang. President Donald Trump’s offer to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-un for a dialogue, an offer backed by Beijing, is unlikely to enthuse the North Korean leadership.
Earlier it was widely feared North Korea could conduct its sixth nuclear test on or around April 15 to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the North’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung, or on April 25 to coincide with the 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People’s Army. It did not happen. North Korea did however launch missiles twice but both times they were unsuccessful, which proves that efforts to make further advance are not abandoned.
Since 2006, North Korea has carried out five nuclear tests and is widely believed to be making progress towards its dream of building a missile capable of delivering a warhead to the continental US. Though Pyongyang issues bellicose statements every year during the US-South Korea annual joint military drill, saying that the drills are rehearsals for invasion, this year, fear of a conflict seems to have breached the threshold as both sides harden positions.
Though the joint drills have ended, naval exercises are continuing in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) with a US strike group led by the aircraft carrier US Carl Vinson. This is where Japan is drawn into the picture, causing controversy at home on Abe administration’s decision to implement the new security legislation that came to effect in March 2016 as Japan decides to guard the US military vessel for the first time.
Dispatch of Izumo
In view of the escalating tensions, Japan launched a mission to guard the US military vessel by dispatching the Maritime Self-Defence Force helicopter carrier Izumo from its Yokosuka base in Kanagawa Prefecture on 1 May 2017 to guard the US Navy supply ship in the Pacific Ocean. The aim was to demonstrate the close Japan-US alliance and deepening cooperation between the SDF and US forces amid rising tensions over the North Korean situation.
Earlier, after the new security legislation came into force, Japan had dispatched its Ground Self Defence Force (GSDF) personnel to participate in UN peace keeping operations in South Sudan with authorisation to carry out a “rush-and-rescue” mission to rescue UN and NGO officials or foreign military personnel under attack. However, the GSDF personnel returned without carrying out the operation. So, Izumo’s dispatch was the first mission that SDF actually carried out under the new legislation.
As per plan, MSDF vessel and US supply ship shall sail side-by-side and MSDF personnel abroad the ship would be permitted to use weapon should either of the two vessels come under attack. The SDF is allowed to guard US and other military vessels engaged in activities that contribute to the defense of Japan under the revised SDF Act. Under the new guidelines, Japan is empowered to guard US and other military vessels engaged in monitoring while on alert against a possible launch of ballistic missiles, gather relevant information, and carry out refuelling and transport operations in contingencies that could develop into armed attacks on Japan if left unaddressed, as well as joint drills.
Since March 2016 when the new security legislation came into force, the responsibilities of MSDF have been expanded, thereby increasing Japan’s role in global security. Earlier, Japan’s SDF was prevented from protecting allied forces as their use of weapons was restricted to self-defence.
Defence Minister Tomomi Inada issued order for Izumo to escort the US supply ship from waters off the Boso Peninsula, in Chiba Prefecture, to the area off Shikoku, the first such operation during peacetime or in “gray zone” situations that do not involve an armed attack. The new security laws allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defence, or coming to the aid of an ally under attack, and expand the scope of SDF activities overseas.
The helicopter carrier Izumo is 19,500-ton and 249-metre long and is as large as Japan’s World War II-era carrier and can operate up to nine helicopters. It resembles the amphibious assault carriers used by the US military but lacks their well deck for launching landing craft and other vessels. The SDF’s escort operation is intended to demonstrate the strength of the Japan-US security alliance and warn North Korea against making further provocations. Following its escort mission, the Izumo will team up with the MSDF destroyer Sazanami from the Kure Base in Hiroshima Prefecture for a voyage to Singapore to participate in an international fleet review event slated for May 15.
Along with US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, the Izumo is also based in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture whose primary mission so far has been anti-submarine warfare. With the new task based on the security laws, Izumo’s responsibilities shall be bolstered in future. Hereafter, the Izumo may provide fuel and other supplies or ships in the US Navy strike group led by the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, already in the Sea of Japan, amid growing tensions over the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Within Japan, such a role by the country lacks universal approval. Critics argue that the legislation erodes Japan’s post-war pacifist Constitution and fear that Japan might be embroiled in overseas conflict for the first time since World War II. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has come under attack from the opposition and peace activists that he has been stretching the limits of the nation’s pacifist Constitution. In order to assuage the negative public sentiment, the Abe administration has designated the Izumo as a destroyer, one of MSDF’s largest, because the Constitution forbids the acquisition of offensive weapons.
The people, however, know that the vessel allows Japan to project military power well beyond its territory. Members of a citizens group gathered near Yokosuka Base to protest the mission as they felt that the deployment of the Izumo would break Japan’s exclusively defensive posture. The government counters and says that such operations are based on Paragraph 2, Article 95 of the SDF Act. The provision allows minimal use of weapons by SDF personnel participating in such missions.
As per the provisions of the security laws, a request from the US is a prerequisite for the SDF to guard US vessels. Japan also needs to refer to the government’s National Security Council in advance on whether to go ahead with such a mission. In this particular case, Tokyo and Washington followed the procedure as tensions were mounting over the North Korean issue, which is why strengthening cooperation further between the SDF and the US forces was felt necessary.
Yet, controversy in Japan did not die down. It was argued if the mission was necessary in the first place. It was also questioned that the SDF ship was supposed to protect the US Navy supply ship in the Pacific Ocean and not the Sea of Japan close to North Korea in the current mission. Public opinion remained split over the pros and cons of enacting the security legislation to open the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defence in a limited way. Critics also voiced concerns that Japan will expand operations as tensions mount over the North Korean issue.
Article 9 the real hurdle
Seen in a larger context, the core of the argument centres on whether to revise Article 9 of the Constitution and if so how. Opinion is sharply divided inside Japan. But as threat perceptions increase amid concerns over North Korea and China’s military build-up, the percentage of supporters gradually increase over those who oppose to any attempt to amend. A Kyodo News Survey conducted in late April 2017 revealed that 49 per cent were in favour of revising Article 9 while 47 per cent opposed such a change. However, 75 per cent of the respondents said that the clause has enabled the country to avoid becoming embroiled in conflicts abroad since World War II.
Amending Article 9 of the Constitution is not easy. Since the Constitution came into effect in May 1947, none of the articles have ever been amended as the procedure to do so is too complicated. Article 96 says that an amendment motion can be initiated by the Diet, through a concurring vote of two-thirds majority or more of all the members of each House and shall thereupon be submitted to the people for ratification, which shall require the affirmative vote of a majority of all votes cast thereon, at a special referendum or at such as the Diet shall specify.
Section 2 of the same article further says that “amendments when so ratified shall immediately be promulgated by the Emperor in the name of the people, as an integral part of this Constitution”. Revisionist politicians therefore now are calling for a revision of Article 96 so that they can begin revising other, more central Articles like Article 9. With this in mind, the Abe government has already lowered the eligibility age for voting from 21 to 18.
The conservatives argue that the Constitution is a product of the US-led Occupation authorities that governed the country after Japan was defeated in World War II and therefore does not truly reflect the will of the present generation of people. The revisionist elements within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party argue that it is realistic in the current security environment the required article of the Constitution be amended to enable the country to strengthen its offensive capabilities to defend the nation.
With already having a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet, the threshold needed for making an amendment proposal, the Abe administration can pass this initial hurdle. But given the deep-rooted anti-nuclear and pacifist sentiment, it is extremely unlikely to be passed through a referendum, which is why Abe government is only reinterpreting the clauses of the new security legislation to achieve his objective without formally tampering with the Constitution.
The fact that the decision to dispatch Izumo evoked such strong public disapproval demonstrates that Japan as a nation is not yet ready to shoulder greater security responsibilities for the region even if the government is willing to be pro-active. Placards and banner with message such as “Guarding a U.S. vessel destroys Japan’s purely defense-only policy” are pointers to the nation’s mood on security and defence issues. They fear that MSDF’s mission could lead to unlimited expansion of the Self-Defense Forces’ operations under new security laws and possibly unintended conflict. However, given the perennial threats from North Korea and China’s expansionist intent with military muscle-building approach, Japan would find compelling reason to shed some of its old inward-looking policies and prepare itself to defend its security interests. This does not mean to suggest that its reliance on the US or its security has weakened but Japan as a country cannot take it for guaranteed for perpetuity and look for ways to stand on its own.
*Professor (Dr.) Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, JAPAN. Disclaimer: The views expressed are author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail: [email protected]