The hottest buzzwords in politics these days are “the right of collective self-defense,” now that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s advisory panel on security has released its much-awaited recommendations for reinterpreting the Constitution.
The Japanese people have been engaged in heated debate as Abe works eagerly to achieve a historic policy shift that would allow Japan to exercise this right, which he says would strengthen the Japan-U.S. military alliance.
But what is the right of collective self-defense? Why is Abe pushing so hard for the change?
Here are some basic questions and answers on the issue:
What is the right of collective self-defense?
It is the right of a country to use armed strength against an armed attack on a foreign country, even if the former is not under direct attack.
The right is recognized under international law, based on Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
Article 2 of the U.N. Charter may basically ban member states from waging war, but Article 51 allows them to use the right of individual or collective self-defense in the event of an armed attack, until the U.N. Security Council takes the necessary measures to maintain international peace and security.
Why is this so controversial in Japan?
Many critics — and everyday people — are concerned that lifting the long-standing ban on this right would drastically change Japan’s long-standing “exclusively defense-oriented policy” by expanding the scope of its military operations to support the U.S. military.
Article 9 of the pacifist postwar Constitution stipulates that “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,” and “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential will never be maintained.”
Those in power in Japan have long maintained that despite the language in Article 9, the Constitution does not deny Japan the right to use the “minimum necessary” force to defend itself. They argue that individual self-defense is the inherent right of any independent country.
At the same time, they have also stuck to the interpretation that Article 9 does not allow the use of collective self-defense because it would exceed the “minimum necessary” use of force allowed for defending only Japan.
In the Cold War years, left-leaning Japanese pacifists feared that lifting the ban on collective self-defense would allow the Japanese government to engage in U.S.-led military operations all over the globe. This view is backed by some legal experts today.
For example, when the United States dramatically escalated its military role in South Vietnam in 1965, it used the right of collective self-defense as its justification.
Adherents of the pacifist Constitution are adamant that Japan should not engage in operations to support such wars.
Why are Abe and many other right-leaning lawmakers calling for removal of the ban at this time?
They have argued that there are contingencies under which the ban could hinder critical military operations to support the United States, and that the security alliance could be jeopardized if Japan refused to support the U.S.
Under the security treaty, the U.S. is obliged to defend Japan by exercising the right of collective self-defense if a third country attacks Japan.
But Japan would not be allowed to help defend the U.S. military unless Japan itself is attacked, according to the government’s long-standing interpretation of Article 9.
For example, a Maritime Self-Defense Force ship would not be allowed to help defend a U.S. Navy vessel that is being attacked on the high seas by a third country such as North Korea or China unless the Japanese ship or Japan itself is under direct attack.
In another example, in the event war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, Japan would likely ask the U.S. to help evacuate Japanese from South Korea with military ships and aircraft. But under the ban on collective self-defense, no SDF ship or airplane would be allowed to defend the U.S. transport craft unless Japan is at war.
According to Abe and many other right-leaning lawmakers, if Japan were to outright refuse to defend the U.S. military in such a situation, the American public might well go ballistic and the resulting fallout could cause irreparable damage to the Japan-U.S. military alliance.
Most Diet members, including those in pacifist New Komeito, agree that the military alliance with the U.S. is critical to Japanese security. Why do they still oppose using collective self-defense?
New Komeito’s lawmakers have argued that most military contingencies cited by Abe can be carried out by merely expanding the scope of individual self-defense or police power without changing the interpretation of Article 9.
For example, according to New Komeito, an MSDF ship can treat an attack on a nearby U.S. ship as an attack that was aimed at it as well.
In addition, they say, it is unrealistic to assume that an enemy country will attack only the U.S. military when the U.S. military and the SDF are conducting joint operations on the high seas.
The Buddhist-back party also says that an attack aimed at a U.S. military base in Japan can also be regarded as an attack on Japanese territory and therefore would be covered by Japan’s use of individual self-defense.
The debate over the legality of collective self-defense and its use is very technical. Are there other political reasons that make this issue so sensitive to the public?
New Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the Liberal Democratic Party, and many other Japanese are worried that Abe may try to eventually expand the scope of collective self-defense and increase SDF military operations overseas.
LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, in a speech May 2 in Washington, said Japan’s use of collective self-defense “will be very limited at the initial stage” but “can be expanded further” if necessary.
Ishiba, second only to Abe in the LDP hierarchy, didn’t elaborate further and his comment fueled worries that Abe may be trying to significantly dilute Japan’s pacifism under Article 9.
Abe, a noted nationalist, has argued long and openly that the U.S.-led Occupation imposed the war-renouncing Constitution on Japan to deprive it of the military capability necessary for self-defense.
Abe maintained that Japan should drastically revise the postwar Constitution, in particular Article 9, to “break away from the postwar regime” imposed by Washington.
This argument has sparked international concern, in particular in China and South Korea, that Abe may be trying to fan nationalist sentiment to use its military power more actively overseas.
Will Abe succeed in persuading New Komeito and eventually change the government’s interpretation of Article 9 to allow Japan to use the right?
This remains to be seen, but it is quite likely.
Abe has reportedly ordered his party to do everything it can to convince New Komeito to drop its resistance so the Cabinet can make a formal decision to change the interpretation of the Constitution before the next Diet session gets underway this autumn.
New Komeito’s leaders are staunchly opposed to the idea, but they have not yet indicated they would go so far as to leave the coalition over this issue.
Executives of the parties are scheduled to start policy talks on collective self-defense on Tuesday.
Ishiba has reportedly said he will continue speaking with New Komeito once a week until the two parties can hammer out an agreement.
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