By K.V. Kesavan*
The passing of the security legislation on September 19 following a great deal of commotion in the Japanese Upper House fulfilled at least partly PM Abe’s long-drawn quest towards making Japan a normal country. He has always believed that Article 9 of the US authored Japanese constitution which put severe restrictions on Japan’s right to collective self-defence and its drive towards reasonable armament should be amended. But as he started his administration following his thumping victory in the Lower House election in December 2012, he soon realised that the path leading to a formal constitutional amendment was fraught with too many political risks. To be sure, Abe was able to significantly improve his political strength in two subsequent elections – the July 2013 Upper House election and the December 2014 Lower House election. Though the LDP-Komeito coalition government has impressive majority strengths in both houses today, it is still falling short of the requisite 2/3 majority in the Upper House needed for passing a constitutional amendment.
Having failed to garner the requisite parliamentary strength, Abe at one time toyed with the idea of lowering the legal bar for constitutional amendment by a simple majority in place of the present complicated method of two thirds majority in both Houses followed by a national referendum on the issue. But seeing a groundswell of public criticism, he quickly dropped the idea and decided instead to reinterpret Article 9 to permit Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defence.
The question relating to Japan’s right to collective self-defence has a long history traceable to 1947 when the US sponsored constitution was promulgated. According to Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan has renounced the use of force as an instrument to settle disputes and in pursuance of this goal, will not maintain air, sea and land forces. In 1981, the Japanese government clarified that while Japan enjoys the right to collective self-defence, it cannot exercise it as it would violate the Constitution. Successive Japanese governments stood by this interpretation despite tremendous pressures they faced from the US which criticised Article 9 as an obstacle to Japan in carrying out its obligations under the bilateral security alliance.
By the time Abe came to power for the second time in 2012, public debate on the issue of the right of collective self-defence assumed greater salience as a result of the increasing activities of the SDF and the worsening security environment of the East Asian region due to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and the modernisation of China’s maritime and air capabilities. A staunch supporter of the US-Japan alliance, Abe believes that the continued presence of the US in the Asia-Pacific region is essential for maintaining the prevailing strategic balance. He set up a special commission under Shunji Yanai to go into the question of Japan’s right to collective self-defence (CSD). The commission came out with the recommendation that unless the ban on collective self-defence was removed Japan’s security would continue to face serious challenges. The Commission, in particular, considered the issue of how to extend support for defending US naval vessels while intercepting ballistic missiles targeting at US territory and for aiding peace-keeping forces. As the Sino-Japanese relations were getting increasingly tense over the Senkaku issue, a crisis could occur accidentally leading to a violent showdown. As the US is obligated to come to the aid of Japan under Article V of the Security Treaty, assistance to the US could be very crucial if Tokyo enjoyed the right to collective self-defence. Abe believes that the right to CSD could enormously strengthen its commitment to regional security, make proactive contribution to peace and build security networks with other countries like Australia, India, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The present legislation deals basically with two laws, the first one for peace and security that modifies ten existing laws and the second one that defines several new functions for the Self-Defence Force. The second law is called The International Peace Support Law. These laws will enable “seamless responses” to any situations to secure the peaceful life of the Japanese people. Asserting that Japan will continue to be a peace-loving country, the bills would help Japan make proactive contribution to international peace, and enhance deterrence of the bilateral security alliance for the peace and security of the Asia Pacific region.
The new laws will also remove the earlier geographical limitations on the role of the SDF. The 1997 Defence Guidelines confined the activities of the SDF primarily to the area surrounding the Korean Peninsula. Now the SDF can support activities in situations anywhere that will have an important influence on Japan’s peace and security. The SDF will now be able to provide necessary logistic support and search and rescue to armed forces of foreign countries collectively addressing the situations that threaten international peace and security. SDF’s role has also been expanded in areas such as ship inspection operations, provision of supplies to the US Forces Rescue of Japanese nationals abroad.
Previously, the Japanese government considered that “the use of force” under the Constitution was permitted only when an “armed attack” occurred against Japan. But the new legislation recognises that in view of the drastically altered security environment of the region, there are situations when an armed against a foreign country could threaten Japan’s survival. The government now has come to the conclusion that the use of force can be permitted if the following three conditions are fulfilled. a) When an armed attack against Japan or against a friendly country that is in close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result threatens Japan’s survival; b) When there is no other appropriate means available to counter aggression and c) the use of force should be limited to the minimum level possible.
On the use of force, Prime Minister Abe has tried hard to explain that there will not be any change in Japan’s traditional commitment to its peaceful orientations and that Japan will not send its forces to fight battles on foreign soil. Eve some American officials clarified that the main objective of the new legislation is to make the bilateral alliance more efficient and inter operable and not to involve Japan in combat activities abroad. Despite these assurances, there is still a great deal of opposition to the security bills which some of the opposition parties have dubbed as “war legislation”. In an opinion poll conducted by the Mainichi , on September 19-20, about 80% of the respondents complained that the explanation offered by the government on issues like the use of force, involvement of Japan in external combat activities, etc, was “insufficient”. Many people in Japan feel that Abe showed a great deal of hurry to push through the bills. How Abe will address the public scepticism and build a national consensus on the issue will be the next key item on his agenda.
*Prof K.V.Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi