Shaky grounds for Abe’s defense bid

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took up the issue of collective self-defense in the Diet on Wednesday for the first time since he announced his intention to seek changes to the government’s long-standing interpretation of the Constitution to enable Japan to take military action overseas when a country with close ties to it is attacked — even though Japan is not under attack.

The scenarios he used to push his case seem farfetched. His remarks also suggest that the “checks” he says will be imposed on the Self-Defense Forces’ military actions outside Japan are so vague that they could be expanded almost limitlessly, although he insists that the scope of Japan’s engagement in collective self-defense would be just the minimum necessary.

During the Lower House Budget Committee session, Abe said that Japan needs to be able to engage in collective self-defense so that it can protect the lives and property of Japanese nationals. This is a proposition nobody can oppose, but the prime minister still has the duty to uphold the rule of law in this country. What Abe is trying to do is change the Constitution without going through the required constitutional process. Yet he simply ignores the danger this action poses to constitutional government — the basis of a modern democracy. Abe is trying to appeal to people’s emotions to achieve his goal. Lawmakers and ordinary citizens alike should not be duped by his rhetoric.

As a possible case where Japan needs to invoke the right to collective self-defense, Abe again cited a scenario in which Japan offers protection to a U.S. naval vessel carrying Japanese evacuees — presumably during a crisis involving the Korean Peninsula. This time he said Japan should offer protection even if such a ship is not carrying Japanese and even if another country’s ship is used to transport the evacuees — which highlights the fact that the limits on the SDF’s overseas missions are vaguely defined under his scenario.

Such a scenario is unlikely in the first place. If there is a sign of a military emergency in the Korean Peninsula, most Japanese in South Korea will be evacuated in advance. The SDF also has a plan to evacuate remaining any Japanese using Japanese vessels. And if the U.S. Navy offers ships for evacuation, it will protect them on its own. In addition, an attack by North Korea against such a ship is unlikely because the U.S. would secure control of the airspace and the sea around the peninsula with its overwhelming military power.

Most troubling, if in such an emergency Japan declares that it will resort to the right of collective self-defense, North Korea would regard Japan as an enemy combatant. The possibility cannot be ruled out that Pyongyang would launch missile attacks against vulnerable targets in Japan, including nuclear power plants. It is most irresponsible for Abe, as the government’s leader, to remain silent on this possibility.

Abe also cited a scenario in which underwater mines are laid in the Strait of Hormuz during a military conflict in the Middle East. He pointed out that this strait is critical to the supply of crude oil to Japan. He asked whether it is appropriate for Japan to not join other countries in sweeping the strait for mines. This example demonstrates that Abe would not impose any geographical limits on the SDF engaging in collective self-defense outside of Japan.

The fact that the prime minister was citing this example as a case justifying Japan’s engagement in collective self-defense shows that he assumes that minesweeping activities would take place during a conflict. In contrast, in 1991 Japan sent Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels to sweep for mines in the Persian Gulf after the Gulf War had ended.

A minesweeping operation normally would start after fighting is over, given that commercial tankers would avoid conflict zones in times of war. If the SDF sweeps for mines while fighting is still taking place, Japan would be deemed an enemy combatant by the country that laid the mines.

Abe also mentioned the possibility of relaxing the current principle that prevents SDF activities in its overseas missions — especially those in United Nations-led peacekeeping operations — from being integrated into the use of force by military units from other countries. In the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Japan limited the SDF’s activities in support of multinational forces to “noncombat areas” in accordance with the current interpretation of the Constitution.

Under the law on measures to be taken in emergency situations in areas surrounding Japan, the SDF’s activities are limited to “support activities in rear areas.” Relaxing the principle would mean a complete change to Japan’s basic security policy. It could lead to the SDF’s use of force overseas even in situations that have no impact on Japan’s security and are not covered by the concept of collective self-defense.

A scenario that Abe has in mind is one in which civilian workers of U.N., nongovernmental organizations or members of other countries’ armed forces are attacked at a location far from where an SDF unit is engaged in U.N. peacekeeping activities. Some lawmakers and experts on military affairs argue that in such a case the SDF unit should be allowed to move to the area where the attack has taken place and use its weapons to protect those personnel. It should be remembered, however, that if Japan declares to the U.N. beforehand that the SDF unit’s mission is one of humanitarian assistance or the reconstruction of an area damaged in a conflict, the U.N. would not require the SDF unit to protect personnel under attack.

Lawmakers from the ruling and opposition blocs need to highlight through further Diet discussions the Constitution-skirting methods that Abe is using to try to change the government’s long-standing traditional interpretation of the supreme law’s war-renouncing Article 9, which was established through discussions in the legislature over decades.