Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, pressed by China and seeking to strengthen ties with the U.S., is considering Japan’s biggest change in military engagement rules since World War II.
Barred by the traditional interpretation of the pacifist Constitution from protecting other nations’ troops, the 59-year-old Abe says Japan needs broader deployment abilities.
Having increased the defense budget two years running and set up a U.S.-style National Security Council, Abe is now seeking to allow Japan to come to the aid of its allies, telling the Diet last month that “it’s about whether we can exercise this right that every country has.”
China’s escalating challenge over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands has played into Abe’s plans to strengthen the Self-Defense Forces, says Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Katsuei Hirasawa. The initiative, which requires backing by Abe’s dovish coalition partner, New Komeito, faces public opposition and risks further straining ties with China and South Korea that grew even worse in December with Abe’s visit to war-related Yasukuni Shrine.
“Abe is determined to do this now because otherwise it is very difficult to get support,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation research center. When regional tensions are low “people don’t see the need for it.”
Abe has shown a willingness to expend political capital on national security. His approval rating dipped below 50 percent after he rammed a bill through in December to stiffen penalties for leaking state secrets that was favored by the U.S. but opposed by a majority of Japanese. His popularity is back above 55 percent and there are no national elections before 2016, giving him some protection from the fallout of loosening the rules on collective self-defense.
Fifty-four percent of Japanese are against the change, according to a poll by Kyodo News conducted Jan. 25 and 26. “This is partly to do with postwar pacifist sentiment in Japan, given that Japan was engaged in a very atrocious and damaging war of aggression,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Such a change would also escalate tensions with China and South Korea, where memories of Japan’s occupation resonate almost 70 years after the end of World War II.
“Japan should build mutual trust with countries in the region, including South Korea, China and Southeast Asian ones, rather than pursue collective security now,” South Korean Vice Defense Minister Baek Seung-joo said, according to a Nov. 6 ministry statement.
Enabling collective self-defense could help ensure the U.S. backs Japan militarily if China asserts its claims over the Senkakus. In November, China set up an air identification zone over part of the East China Sea covering the islets, increasing the risk of confrontation with Japan and the U.S.
“What is lucky for the Abe administration is that China set up the ADIZ,” said the LDP’s Hirasawa, who tutored Abe as a child. “That proves that what the Abe administration has been saying is correct. China is taking a stronger and stronger stance.”
Japan was stung by accusations of “checkbook diplomacy” after the country contributed $13 billion and no troops to the U.S.-led 1991 Gulf War.
The government then began changing policy, allowing the first substantial contribution of troops to a United Nations peacekeeping operation in Cambodia in 1992. Still, the 600 troops sent to Iraq in 2004 to support the U.S.-led war were limited to noncombat duties and had to be protected by Dutch and Australian soldiers.
The quest to expand the military’s role comes as part of Abe’s policy of contributing more actively to international security and seeking a higher profile on the world stage, with a busy diplomatic schedule taking him to 30 countries in his first year in office.
“Abe is more of a globalist than just about any of his predecessors,” said Alan Dupont, a professor of international security at the University of New South Wales. “He sees a new role for Japan commensurate with its economic and political weight.”
Yousuke Isozaki, a special adviser to Abe on security policy, is spearheading the effort on collective self-defense and says the change will deepen security ties with the U.S. and allow Japan to reach out to other allies.
“We want to be able to discuss security with friendly countries other than the U.S.,” he said Jan. 17. “If we are bound hand and foot, we cannot talk. We cannot even say we will protect one another if something happens.”
Isozaki guided Abe’s unpopular secrecy bill through the Diet while thousands of protesters chanted outside the building.
“There’s no time to sit around,” he said. The process will accelerate once an advisory panel of mostly academics submits its recommendations in April. Isozaki is looking for the LDP and the pacifist New Komeito to adopt a joint position by June, and expects bills related to the change to be presented starting in autumn.
“Japan will be a more effective alliance partner if its Self-Defense Forces are able to help defend American soldiers or sailors if they are attacked,” U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy told the Asahi Shimbun in an interview published Jan. 23.
Securing the reinterpretation will be complicated by the need for New Komeito’s support. “Until now, we haven’t done a single thing without the agreement of Komeito,” Isozaki said. “Getting their approval is a must.” The party backed Abe on the secrecy bill and the NSC legislation.
Isamu Ueda, deputy head of New Komeito’s policy panel, said he favors Japan’s pacifist policy, while being open to possible exemptions, such as allowing troops to protect other countries’ forces during peacekeeping work.
“We believe Japan should keep its military power to a minimum,” Ueda said in a Jan. 21 interview. “Japan should not be involved in international conflicts outside the country.”