Rushing on collective self-defense

Talks between the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bid to reinterpret the Constitution to enable Japan to engage in collective self-defense have bordered on rhetorical maneuvers to make it appear as if the change would allow the nation to use force only in a minimum scope outside its territory — to get the reluctant junior coalition partner on board.

What became evident through the nearly wrapped-up talks is that the “limits” that the Abe administration promises to impose are so vaguely defined as to leave broad room for Japanese involvement in overseas military operations.

In substance, the change will enable Japan to take military action to defend other countries even though the nation itself is not under attack — a fundamental departure from Japan’s postwar defense posture that restricted its use of force to acts of self-defense to repel an enemy attack on its territory. Abe has repeatedly emphasized that Japan will engage in the minimum level of collective self-defense necessary. However, statements by the prime minister and LDP leaders suggest that they want to avoid tying the government’s hands too tight.

With the LDP and New Komeito now in broad agreement, the Abe administration seems set to adopt a Cabinet decision as early as this week to change the government’s long-standing interpretation of the Constitution’s Article 9.

A final draft of the Cabinet decision presented to the ruling coalition reportedly says the constitutional constraint on the use of force needs to be reinterpreted “given the fundamental change in the security environment” surrounding Japan in which “a military attack on another country can threaten the very existence of our country” depending on the objective, scale and situation of the attack.

It says that Japan can engage in the “minimum necessary use of force” when an attack on a country that “has close relations” with Japan “poses a clear danger of threatening our country’s existence and fundamentally overthrowing our people’s lives, freedom and right to pursue happiness.” It goes on to say that the use of force allowed under the Constitution “can be based on the right to collective self-defense under international law.”

In the process of the talks, the LDP proposed to New Komeito that Japan should be able to take part in United Nations-led collective security arrangements such as minesweeping operations by multinational forces based on Security Council resolutions.

Although the final draft does not mention collective security mechanisms, LDP leaders suggest that the Cabinet decision will not rule out Japan joining minesweeping operations in sea lanes under U.N. auspices.

A report by a private advisory panel to Abe said in mid-May that Article 9 of the Constitution, which “renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” does not prohibit Japan from joining U.N.-led collective security operations.

But the prime minister told a news conference immediately after the panel issued the report that he does not take that view, saying that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces will “never in the future” take part in conflicts like the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War “for the purpose of using force.”

While the LDP’s proposal appeared to contradict Abe’s statement, the prime minister later told the Diet that operations such as minesweeping “are a passive and limited action and are different in nature from airstrikes or ground invasion of enemy territory.”

What Abe and the LDP leaders seem to not realize — or simply choose to ignore — is that the concept of “limited use of force” is difficult to apply in actual military conflict situations. Under international law, minesweeping is considered nothing less than a use of force. If Japan took part in such an activity during war, it would make Japan a party to the conflict and an enemy of the country that had laid the mines.

New Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi says his party is now convinced that the conditions set by the Abe administration for Japan’s use of force in collective self-defense “provide multiple layers of safeguards” that will prevent the nation’s military actions overseas from expanding limitlessly. The party is reversing its opposition to reinterpreting the meaning of Article 9 of the Constitution after several rounds of talks held over roughly a month.

While intent on winning over the reluctant coalition partner, Abe and the LDP do not appear ready to heed public opinion that is critical of the move.

In seeking to change the nation’s basic postwar defense posture, the prime minister has bypassed the process of amending the Constitution through a constitutionally prescribed procedure, which requires majority approval in a public referendum following Diet concurrence by two-thirds or more of the lawmakers in each chamber, and is trying to reinterpret the Constitution with a single decision of his Cabinet.

The latest Kyodo News poll shows that 55.4 percent of the people polled oppose Japan’s engaging in collective self-defense, and 57.7 percent oppose Abe’s bid to achieve that by changing the government’s interpretation of the Constitution. Opposition rose to as high as 70 percent among pollees who support New Komeito. Even though the LDP’s junior coalition partner appears to have come around, many citizens apparently remain unconvinced by the Abe administration’s moves.