Collective defense: What it means for Japan

by Reiji Yoshida

Under the initiative of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a new government panel held its first meeting Friday to discuss whether Japan can legally exercise the right to participate in “collective self-defense.’

The government has always interpreted the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 as banning this right.

Article 9 says:

1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, 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.

2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

Here are some answers to questions on the current interpretation of Article 9 and what the panel has been asked to do:

What does Article 9 prohibit Japan from doing according to the government’s interpretation?

Initially, when the Constitution was ratified in 1947 under the Allied Occupation, Article 9 was understood to mean that Japan could have no military force at all.

However, when the Korean War began in 1950, the U.S. wanted to move the majority of its forces in Japan to the Korean Peninsula and have Japan defend itself. The National Police Reserve was established later that year, with veterans of the Imperial Japanese Army making up half of its ranks.

As the Cold War progressed and the U.S. saw Japan as a bulwark in East Asia against communism, the Self-Defense Forces were in formed in 1954.

At that time, the government established an interpretation of Article 9 that says it only prohibits the use of force “as means of settling international disputes,” and doesn’t deny the country it’s natural right to defend itself when attacked.

However, the government attached a clause to the interpretation that says Japan is not allowed to participate in collective defense. The government’s position was, and continues to be, that such action would go beyond the minimum necessary use of force to defend the country.

What is “collective self-defense?”

The 1945 United Nations Charter outlaws war. However, Article 51 allows member states to exercise the right of “collective self-defense,” or the right of a state to use force to stop an attack on an ally.

Many diplomats and international law experts have criticized the term “collective self-defense,” saying the term is misleading, that military action to help defend another country is not “self-defense.” Hans Kelsen, an expert on international law, has argued that the term should be “collective defense.”

The term and its definition, however, have come to be generally accepted, with nations forming military alliances, such as NATO.

Why is this issue controversial in Japan?

Many Japanese are concerned that if the country has the right to collective defense, the SDF would become more actively involved in U.S. military operations overseas, such as in Iraq. They also fear that it will be easier for the government to start using the military for more than just self-defense.

Under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, isn’t Japan required to defend the United States if it is attacked?

No. Under the treaty, the U.S. is obliged to defend Japan if it is attacked, but Japan is not required to defend the U.S.

In place of helping to defend the U.S., Japan is obliged to give the U.S. vast tracts of land here for military bases, and Japan provides considerable logistic and financial support to the U.S. military stationed here.

According to the official interpretation of Article 9, allowing the U.S. to use Japanese territory and provide it with logistics support does not constitute “collective self-defense” so long as the support is not linked directly to the use of military force by the U.S.

Conservative politicians, most notably Prime Minister Abe, have argued Japan could lose the U.S. commitment to the security treaty obligations in wartime unless Japan changes its interpretation of collective defense under Article 9 to allow for more military cooperation with the U.S.

What has Abe asked the “collective self-defense” panel to do?

Abe has been a longtime vocal advocate of removing the ban on “collective self-defense.” However, he appears to taking a cautious approach to the politically charged issue.

He has not asked the panel to decide outright whether the government’s interpretation should be changed, but rather has presented four hypothetical situations to the committee and asked them to determine whether the Constitution bans the country from taking action.

The scenarios are: a ballistic missile is on its way to the United States; the SDF is in international waters near a ship from an allied nation that is under attack; peacekeeping forces that Japan participates in — without using force — come under attack; forces of other countries fighting overseas ask for logistics support.

Most of the 13 panel members are believed to support changing the government’s current interpretation, and the panel is expected to conclude in the fall that all four cases the SDF could act under the Constitution.

While Abe has only asked for decisions on these scenarios, the panel is likely to also urge the government to seriously consider relaxing the ban on collective defense.

How could completely lifting the ban affect Japan’s defense policy and security in Asia?

Changing the interpretation would mean the government could have the SDF do more in U.S. military operations, particularly in logistics support. It could also possibly pave the way for a more comprehensive review of Article 9.

It could also lead to problems in diplomatic relations in the region. China has said it is concerned that if Japan lifts the ban, the power balance in East Asia could be affected.