Inching toward collective self-defense

The foreign and defense ministers of Japan and the United States agreed at their 2-plus-2 meeting in Tokyo on Oct. 3 to revise the two countries’ defense cooperation guideline by the end of 2014 in view of China’s military buildup and North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles development. But in revising the guideline, the Abe administration appears to be readying to discard Japan’s traditional “defense-only defense” posture, which has earned Japan the trust of the international community. The government should refrain from such a move as it would destabilize the regional security environment,

In a joint statement issued after the meeting, Japan said “it is re-examining the legal basis for its security including exercising its right of collective self-defense, expanding its defense budget, reviewing its National Defense Program Guidelines, strengthening its capability of defending its sovereign territory, and broadening regional contributions, including capacity-building efforts vis-a-vis Southeast Asian countries.” The U.S. welcomed these efforts.

The government’s traditional interpretation of the war-renouncing Article 9 is that it prohibits exercise of the right of collective self-defense. If the Abe administration tries to change this interpretation — a move tantamount to gutting Article 9 — without going through the normal constitutional revision process, it will be undermining Japanese democracy.

If Japan decides to exercise the right of collective self-defense, the Self-Defense Forces could engage in offensive military operations overseas with other countries such as the U.S. This would be a complete negation of Article 9. The SDF would also be able to take part in military operations that have no direct connections with the security of Japan. Clearly an embrace of the right of collective self-defense by Japan would increase friction with China and North Korea and could spark a regional arms race.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to use a decision to exercise the right of collective self-defense as leverage for altering Article 9 itself. In revising the National Defense Program Guidelines, his administration is considering clearing the SDF to carry out preemptive attacks on enemy missile bases and to possess functions similar to those of the U.S. Marine Corps.

The administration appears to think that beefing up Japan’s military capabilities will facilitate the resolution of security issues faced by Japan. But as history shows, skillful diplomacy is the most important factor in resolving disputes, not military power.

On Oct. 1, a high-ranking official of the U.S. armed forces stationed in South Korea urged caution over moves to revise Article 9: “That’s not helpful to the region, quite frankly.” The official also said that discussion of revising the no-war constitutional clause “is always perceived” as counterproductive in the region. Mr. Abe should be aware that the U.S. does not back his hawkish stance, which would increase tension in the region, especially with China, and that his moves are complicating the security environment and actually weakening Japan’s security rather than strengthening it.

The joint statement also called for moving the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa Island, further north to Henoko. But this will only increase resentment among Okinawans. Japan and the U.S. should rethink the Henoko plan.

  • Steven R. Simon

    Simon says a new US/Japan security treaty of equals pledging both parties to mutual defense is imperative to retain the support of the US public for the defense of Japan.