Lawmakers are due to continue debating two contentious security bills until mid-September, comprising some of the most controversial government-sponsored legislation to reach the Diet in recent years.
But the bills are considered difficult to understand, and media polls indicate a majority of voters feel lawmakers in the ruling coalition have failed to explain what changes the bills would bring about.
Following are basic questions and answers regarding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s security bills.
Why did Abe’s government submit the bills?
Right-leaning politicians like Abe have long argued that the government’s interpretation of the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 has imposed too many restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces, particularly in connection with operations to support the U.S. military.
If Japan refuses to support U.S. forces in an emergency, it would endanger the Japan-U.S. military alliance, Abe has argued.
Abe had sought to change the government’s interpretation of Article 9 during his 2006-2007 first stint as prime minister, but failed to draw up the necessary bills by the time of his resignation, citing poor health.
Now thanks to his relatively high approval ratings and lack of strong rivals within the Liberal Democratic Party, which he heads, Abe is trying to achieve his goal again by submitting the controversial bills to the Diet, including one to lift the ban on collective self-defense.
Article 9 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.” The article thus prohibits Japan from owning “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.”
But the postwar government has long maintained it is only natural to assume that the Constitution, despite Article 9, does not deny Japan’s inherent right, like that of any sovereign state, to defend itself.
At the same time, the government has said the use of force should be strictly limited to “the minimum necessary level” for self-defense, and thus the right of collective self-defense was considered banned. That right, as defined under the United Nation charter, allows a country to use force to aid an ally even if the country itself is not under attack.
Under this constitutional interpretation, postwar Japan has maintained an “exclusively defensive” policy, meaning it can use force only after another country attacks it.
The SDF is accordingly allowed only to engage in missions specifically mentioned in law. Any other operations are considered banned categorically.
What would change if the two bills become law?
One of the two bills would amend 10 existing security-related laws to ease various restrictions on the SDF’s operations, including the long-standing ban on collective self-defense.
Under the bill, Japan would be allowed to use the right of collective self-defense to support an ally country — presumably the United States — if Japan’s “survival” is at stake. There would, however, be conditions: that no alternative means is available and that the use of force is kept to the “minimum necessary.”
Abe has insisted that legislation is constitutional because under the bill, for Japan to use the right, the emergency in question would need to be critically relevant to Japan’s own security rather than that of the ally alone.
The other bill meanwhile would create a new permanent law to allow Japan to deploy the SDF overseas to provide logistic support for a military operation of a foreign or multinational force to “remove (the) threat to peace and safety of the international society.”
The government currently needs to enact a temporary law each time it wishes to dispatch the SDF to provide logistics support to a multinational force, such as those in recent years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The new permanent law would make it easier for Tokyo to send an SDF unit on such overseas missions.
The bill requires that the multinational force be authorized by a United Nations resolution.
Since the U.N. Charter allows all nations to use the right of collective self-defense, why is this a hot issue in Japan?
Many voters are opposed to changing Japan’s postwar pacifist stance.
They also fear the new law could drag the nation into an unwanted war, in particular one involving the U.S., Japan’s main military ally.
At the same time, a majority of constitutional scholars believe Abe’s new security bill is unconstitutional.
This provides powerful ammunition to opposition lawmakers and voters who oppose the bill.
The right of collective self-defense, after all, is to use force for the sake of another country, and it would exceed the “minimum necessary level” of force allowed under Article 9, the experts say.
Why does Abe seek a permanent law to make it easier to send the SDF in support of U.N.-authorized multinational forces?
Japan has often been criticized for “checkbook diplomacy” in contributing to international society when it comes to military operations.
Foreign Ministry officials have therefore long hoped to create a permanent law to strengthen Japan’s say in diplomacy in international society.
Meanwhile the Constitution prohibits Japan from using force “as means of settling international disputes.”
Thus under temporary dispatch laws, the SDF is allowed to engage only in logistics support operations in noncombat zones.
The government has insisted the logistics support role is constitutional because it says a conceptual line can be drawn between SDF logistic support and “use of force” by the multinational force in question.
The permanent law would expand the government’s definition of a noncombat zone and would allow the SDF to provide ammunition to a multinational force.
Some opposition lawmakers have pointed out that logistics units always play critical roles in military operations and that it is impossible to separate “use of force” from the SDF’s logistics support.
Moreover, they say it will become even more difficult to separate the two under the new law.
What other legal restrictions would be eased if the two bills are passed?
One of the two bills would revise Article 95 of the SDF Law to allow Japan to protect “weapons” of the U.S. military and other allies when they are engaging in operations that “contribute to the defense of our country.”
Currently the SDF is not allowed to defend a U.S. military unit even if it is attacked by a third party during a joint Japan-U.S. peacetime operation on the high seas.
But Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said the revised article would allow the SDF to “use force” to protect U.S. military ships if the U.S. military and Japan are engaging in peacetime joint transport, intelligence-gathering or patrol operations.
High-ranking U.S. officials have said they hope Japan will engage in joint patrols with the U.S. over the South China Sea, where Beijing claims sovereignty and has raised tensions with surrounding countries.
Although Nakatani said Japan currently has no plans for such joint operations, he said Tokyo “is always concerned about” the situation in the seas nearby.