The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday authorized a reinterpretation of war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, allowing Japan for the first time since World War II to come to the aid of an ally under attack.
The authorization marks a landmark shift in the postwar defense posture, which has prevented the country from waging wars on foreign soil.
Nevertheless, administration officials say the new policy emphasizes that Japan remains defense-oriented and will follow the path of a peaceful country, seeking to resolve conflicts through diplomatic means.
But the reinterpretation is certain to anger China and South Korea, which see it as a sign of resurgent Japanese militarism.
Abe offered reassurances that Japan will not launch a war against other countries and not become embroiled in warfare waged by other countries.
“We will not resort to the use of force (solely) with the aim of defending other countries,” Abe told a news conference following the Cabinet meeting to authorize the move. “By being fully prepared to deal with any situation, Japan can foil any attempt to wage war against Japan.”
Even though collective self-defense is an inherent right granted to member nations by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, previous governments maintained that the Constitution forbids the use of force in all cases except when the nation comes under direct attack.
To fend off criticism for changing the defense posture without holding a national referendum to revise the Constitution, the Abe administration has broadened the definition of self-defense to include the defense of allies.
The administration has introduced three new conditions by which Japan can resort to force under the banner of preserving the nation’s survival and the lives and rights of its people.
According to the new conditions, Japan can come to the aid of a friendly nation if:
The attack on that country poses a clear danger to Japan’s survival or could fundamentally overturn Japanese citizens’ constitutional rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
There is no other way of repelling the attack and protecting Japan and its citizens.
The use of force is limited to the minimum necessary.
Pacifist coalition member New Komeito, which is backed by the lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, still advocates not exercising the right to collective self-defense. For this reason, the statement approved Tuesday avoids clearly stating Japan can exercise the right. Instead, it asserts that some of the newly permitted actions could be perceived as exercising the right to collective self-defense under international law.
“This is about defending Japan, not about defending other countries,” New Komeito Vice President Kazuo Kitagawa said. “Collective self-defense under international law means defending other countries without considering if that would infringe on one’s own security, but we see this as part of the self-defense of Japan.”
Abe has given assurances that Japan will not join military operations by coalition forces authorized by the U.N., such as the Gulf War. However, this runs counter to the recommendation of his own handpicked panel, which recommended in its defense report in May that Japan should take part in such operations.
For all Abe’s assurances, the public is fearful that the conditions by which Japan might be perceived as under threat will end up giving the government a free hand to expand Self-Defense Forces involvement abroad.
But the two ruling parties counter that the conditions cannot be interpreted overly loosely.
“We have applied the brakes sufficiently to prevent Japan from doing what Abe said Japan will not do, even in the future,” said LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura.
Yet the two parties appear to differ on what constitutes a clear danger to Japan.
Abe is eager for Japan to join international minesweeping operations in the Strait of Hormuz to help secure sea lanes used by 80 percent of the tankers that deliver oil to Japan. New Komeito executives, on the other hand, argue action taken so far away from Japan is not easy to justify as protecting the nation from clear danger.
For its part, the U.S., which has called on Japan to assume a greater security role amid sharp cuts in its own defense budget, is likely to hail Abe’s initiative. The two countries will revise by the end of the year their guidelines for defense cooperation, which will be the first revision in 17 years.
Abe wants the new guidelines to reflect his updated defense strategy, giving Japan a bigger role in any regional contingencies, namely on the Korean Peninsula. The SDF could also be authorized to defend American warships on the high seas or shoot down missiles heading for U.S. territory.
The ruling coalition still must hold talks on necessary legislation. The administration will have to submit bills to revise related laws such as the Self-Defense Law and the Japan Coast Guard Law to accommodate the changes at an extraordinary Diet sessions in the fall.