Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s advisory panel on security Thursday released a much-awaited report that pushes for changing the government’s interpretation of the Constitution to legalize the use of collective self-defense.
Later in the day, Abe ordered the ruling coalition to begin policy talks next week on the proposed change.
Whether New Komeito, the junior partner in the coalition with Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, will bow to his demand and accept the proposal remains to be seen. But given his obvious determination and the LDP’s overwhelming strength in both chambers of the Diet, Buddhist-backed New Komeito might strike a compromise that would allow the Cabinet to lift the long-standing ban on exercising the right as early as this fall, before the next Diet session starts.
The right to collective self-defense allows a country to use military force — even if not under direct attack — to help an ally under armed attack.
War-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution has long been interpreted as prohibiting Japan from using this right because it limits Japan to the “minimum necessary” use of force in defending just itself.
The panel’s position is a dramatic departure from the government’s long-held view. The report argues that there are some cases in which Japan’s use of collective self-defense to protect an ally would fall within the range of the “minimum necessary” use of force for protecting Japanese lives and property.
“Japan faces a situation where the previous constitutional interpretation won’t suffice for maintaining peace and stability in Japan as well as the regional and international communities, given the size and speed of changing strategic situations,” the report states.
Many people in Japan and abroad are concerned that changing the government’s interpretation of the supreme code would greatly expand Japan’s military risks and operations overseas.
Abe’s reputation as a nationalist hawk has further fueled public concerns, while government officials have claimed they are considering restricting the use of the right to a limited range of scenarios, and making sure it would not be used to join a large-scale war.
The panel, headed by former Ambassador to the U.S. Shunji Yanai, argues that Japan should be allowed to use the right if “a foreign country that has close relations with our country” is attacked by a third country in a situation that could potentially have a “grave impact” on the safety of Japan.
The government should be allowed to use the right if such an attack could lead to a direct attack to Japan, critically damage the Japan-U.S. military alliance, considerably affect the international order, or remarkably damage the life and rights of the Japanese people, according to the report.
As a model case, the panel suggested that the government study whether Japan should be allowed to use the right of collective self-defense when a U.S. naval ship is attacked by a third country on the high seas.Other hypothetical cases that should be examined include whether Japan should be allowed to board foreign ships without consent of the captain or sweep mines in foreign waters when it could affect Japanese shipping, the panel said. These actions have been all considered “use of force” and banned under the current interpretation of the Constitution.
Apparently bidding to ease public concerns, the panel proposed several conditions that should be met before exercising collective self-defense.
These include using the right only when a country under attack specifically requests Japan’s support; only with Diet approval; and limits the Self-Defense Forces from entering foreign countries unless they have permission.
Abe outlined two types of missions the SDF is constitutionally prohibited from engaging in: It is not allowed to defend U.S. ships evacuating Japanese from a foreign country at war, and it cannot defend foreign troops or aid workers while engaged in U.N.-led peace-keeping operations abroad.
“Your son or grandson may be in that location. As the prime minister, I’m responsible for protecting their lives,” Abe said.
“Is it really OK that the Japanese government cannot do anything in such a situation?” Abe asked.
The report says Japan should be allowed to join U.N.-authorized military actions, such as those in the Persian Gulf War. However, Abe said the government will not adopt that proposal.
If Abe succeeds in persuading New Komeito to accept the proposals, Abe’s administration will submit the related bills during an extraordinary legislative session in the fall.
Getting New Komeito on board is expected to take a lot of hard work. The party is on the fence about changing Japan’s military posture in the name of collective self-defense.
“I believe the two scenarios that the prime minister illustrated in the press conference can be dealt with under the current constitutional interpretation,” New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said after Abe’s speech.
Yamaguchi also said the coalition will start discussions on how the SDF can more efficiently respond to so-called gray-zone scenarios, or armed incidents that fall short of full-scale military attacks. New Komeito feels those kinds of threats are more imminent and relevant than anything that might evoke the need for collective self-defense, given the regional security situation.
While tensions with China over the disputed Senkaku Islands have been ratcheted up, the report listed potential scenarios, including attempts by special units to occupy remote Japanese islands or relentless intrusions into Japanese waters by foreign submarines.
Among the most probable cases are a surprise landing on the Senkakus by Chinese soldiers disguised as fishermen, experts suggested, because the SDF apparently cannot respond militarily to such an act unless it is acknowledged as a military attack by a sovereign nation.
Similarly, the SDF cannot resort to the use of arms against submarines that defy orders to leave territorial waters unless the hostile actions are deemed as an armed attack by a sovereign nation.
Meanwhile, conservatives say it is also crucial for Tokyo to show the U.S. it is rectifying the “asymmetric” alliance by enabling Japan to play a bigger military role at a time when Japan is revising the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation Guidelines for the first time in 17 years.