Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is poised to achieve his long-held goal of reinterpreting Article 9 of the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise its right to engage in collective self-defense under the U.N. Charter.
In February, Abe reconvened an advisory panel of security experts for the first time since his previous, short-lived stint as prime minister nearly six years ago. He also appointed Ambassador to France Ichiro Komatsu, a collective defense advocate, as new head of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, which has long upheld the ban on collective defense according to the government’s current interpretation of Article 9, which renounces the use of force to settle international disputes.
Reinterpreting Article 9, which Abe eventually hopes to amend, would be a big change for a nation that has effectively had a defense-only posture since the war.
Here are some questions and answers on collective self-defense and interpreting the Constitution:
What is the right?
Article 51 of the United Nations Charter authorizes member states to exercise collective self-defense — the use of force to defend an ally under armed attack.
Japan thus has this right under international law, but the government has banned its use because it implies the use of force beyond what is necessary to defend Japan.
Article 9 states: “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.
“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.”
The present interpretation dates to a report submitted to the Diet in 1972 by the then-Liberal Democratic Party-led government. The report said Japan as a sovereign state is entitled to the right to collective self-defense under international law but cannot exercise it under Article 9.
This stance was repeated in 1981. Then-LDP Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki’s Cabinet said in a written response submitted to the Lower House that Article 9 allows only minimum self-defense and any collective activity would go beyond that scope, thus the exercise of that right is banned by the Constitution, which took effect in 1947. This interpretation stands.
Collective self-defense did not become a major bone of contention until 1960, when the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty was revised and questions were raised about whether the Constitution allows Japan to send the Self-Defense Forces overseas to defend an ally. As demands from the U.S. for Japan to boost its defense cooperation increased in the 1980s and as the SDF started to participate in joint military exercises with the U.S., the debate heated up, leading the government to clarify Japan’s stance on the use of force other than for its own defense.
Why has Abe been eager to change the status quo?
The general argument has been that Japan needs to strengthen its security alliance with the U.S. to counter North Korea’s growing missile and nuclear threats and China’s expanding military might and provocations in the East China Sea. Cybersecurity and terrorism are also new angles Japan needs to consider, experts say.
What did the advisory panel set up in 2007 discuss?
Abe presented four hypothetical scenarios to the panel in 2007, asking them to determine if Japan can act on them.
In response, the panel compiled a report in 2008 recommending Japan be allowed to use force in all the scenarios, which included: shooting down a ballistic missile headed toward the U.S.; defending U.S. military ships on the high seas that are in joint operations with the SDF; using arms in U.N.-led peacekeeping operations to defend allied troops; and providing logistic support for U.N.-led troops fighting overseas.
After Abe stepped down in 2007, the panel in June 2008 submitted its recommendations to his successor, Yasuo Fukuda, who took no further action.
When Abe revived the panel in February, he picked the same 13 experts, headed by ex-Ambassador to the U.S. Shunji Yanai, to resume talks on lifting the self-imposed ban. The panel plans to make its recommendations by year’s end.
Will the same four scenarios be revisited?
The panel is reportedly expected to discuss more than the four hypothetical cases this time.
It will also consider extending the parameters of collective self-defense to include other countries than the U.S. They also plan to weigh whether to aid countries that defend sea lanes to protect oil shipments from the Middle East, reports said.
International University President Shinichi Kitaoka, the panel’s acting chairman, said in a recent interview with Kyodo News that its new report will state Japan can exercise the right of collective self-defense when “countries with close ties” are under attack.
Although Kitaoka said the panel won’t specify which countries Japan may seek to defend, Australia, South Korea and Southeast Asian nations were floated at its February meeting.
Last week, Kitaoka said his team is also looking at allowing Japan to engage in U.N.-led collective security — as allowed by the U.N. Charter. This is an arrangement whereby nations agree to take joint action against a state that attacks any one of them.
Can the government engage in collective self-defense merely by reinterpreting Article 9?
No. It will also need to change any laws related to the execution of the right, including the Self-Defense Forces Law, to stipulate the procedures and other details needed for the SDF to do so.
What opposition would a reinterpretation face?
The Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and even the LDP’s junior partner, New Komeito, are opposed to reinterpreting Article 9 and collective self-defense in any way.
But lifting the ban would also draw heavy criticism from China and what is now South Korea, which suffered heavily from Japanese conquest during the war.
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