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Tensions mount over security talks

by Ayako Mie, Mizuho Aoki, and Reiji Yoshida

staff writers

A political showdown is approaching as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pressures the ruling coalition to agree to overhaul Japan’s long-standing pacifist security stance, possibly as early as Friday.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is trying to persuade junior coalition partner New Komeito to agree to Abe’s proposals for a number of new contingency laws, including the reinterpretation of the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 to allow Japan to use the right to collective self-defense.

But some experts have pointed out that the 16 scenarios Abe has cited as reasons for reform are unlikely and many could be dealt with under existing security laws. They allege Abe may be trying to use those scenarios as a pretext to remove key legal restrictions that have limited Japan’s military capability to an exclusively defensive posture since World War II.

“The scenarios are all unrealistic. They could be handled by the Self-Defense Forces and Japan Coast Guard if existing systems are improved,” said Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former Defense Ministry official who served as assistant chief Cabinet secretary in charge of crisis management from 2004 to 2009.

“Exercising the right to collective self-defense in these scenarios would mean Japan is willingly taking part in potential warfare,” he said.

The right to collective self-defense is the right of a country to use military force in the event of an armed attack on an allied country, even if the former is not itself directly under attack.

The right is recognized by international law, based on Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. But Japan’s pacifist Constitution has long been interpreted as prohibiting the nation from using it, since it would mean exceeding the “minimum necessary” self-defense capabilities.

Abe has argued, for example, that Japan should be allowed to defend a U.S. vessel evacuating Japanese nationals from a third country involved in a military situation, perhaps South Korea, even if Japan itself is not under attack.

Yanagisawa has dismissed the argument, saying it is implausible that the U.S. would use military vessels to evacuate civilians when those ships are at risk of being attacked.

And Japan itself would try to evacuate most Japanese nationals in advance if such a situation ever came to pass, Yanagisawa has argued.

Other scenarios Abe cited include aiding U.S. vessels under attack in an area near Japan, shooting down a ballistic missile heading for U.S. territories such as Guam or Hawaii, and defending U.S. vessels engaged in military operations near Japan after the U.S. mainland is attacked with ballistic missiles.

But Yanagisawa argued that Japan can already exercise the right to individual self-defense under these situations because Japan itself would likely also be under attack.

Many experts believe Japan’s anti-ballistic missile defense system, based on Aegis destroyers, is unlikely to be able to intercept multiple ballistic missiles launched simultaneously.

Abe has also argued a Self-Defense Force unit participating in a U.N.-led peacekeeping operation should be allowed to defend Japanese aid workers with force, which Abe says is currently prohibited by the Constitution.

But Tetsu Nakamura, a doctor who has headed aid group Peshawar-kai for more than 30 years, said he would simply terminate all of the group’s activities in Afghanistan should Japan enter a war citing collective-self defense.

“If Japan’s SDF comes to defend (Japanese aid workers), local people would not understand and would turn hostile toward them. That’s what Western countries have done so far. I would just flee in such a situation,” Nakamura said.

NATO troops got involved in Afghanistan by citing the right to collective self-defense. But local people know Japan has engaged only in non-combat operations, which means Japanese aid workers remain relatively safe, Nakamura said.

Kenji Isezaki, a professor of peace and conflict studies at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said Abe should not focus solely on protecting Japanese aid workers.

“It is shameful to assume that Japan only needs to protect Japanese NGO members. In a battlefield, any NGO worker of any nationality should be protected,” he said.

He added it is unrealistic for peacekeepers to ask the SDF directly to protect aid workers because they usually report to the U.N. Command, which would then request a nearby military unit engaged in the U.N. mission to provide protection.

Then why is Abe rushing for new contingency laws? Experts say he believes it is indispensable for improving the alliance with the U.S. at a time when the two countries are revising bilateral defense cooperation guidelines for first time in 17 years.

Abe has argued if the SDF fails to respond when it sees U.S. military forces being attacked by a third country, it would draw huge emotional repercussions from the U.S. and could kill the alliance.

Japan should therefore change the constitutional interpretation to allow it to be more proactive and show more of a commitment to the Japan-U.S. alliance, Abe has argued.

As a nationalist, Abe probably has another personal ambition in abandoning Japan’s pacifist posture and becoming more self-reliant as far as security policies are concerned.

He has long argued that the U.S.-led Occupation imposed the war-renouncing Constitution on Japan to deprive it of the military capability necessary for self-defense.

“The initial intention of the Occupation force was to tie Japan hand and foot so that it would never emerge as a great power,” Abe wrote in his book, published in 2006.

He has openly maintained that Japan should drastically revise the postwar Constitution, particularly Article 9, to “break with the postwar regime” imposed by Washington.

At the same time, Abe has consistently argued the maintenance of the Japan-U.S. Alliance is the “best choice” for Japan, given the U.S.’s massive power and global influence.

The Japan-U.S. security treaty obliges the U.S. to defend Japan if it is under attack by a third country. Japan should be allowed to use the right of collective self-defense to defend the U.S. to make the treaty “more bilateral,” Abe’s approach holds.