WASHINGTON/HONOLULU – The announcement by Japan’s government that it will reinterpret the country’s constitution and permit a greater range of military activity has evoked reactions across the spectrum. From outright opposition in Beijing and suspicion in Seoul, to unqualified support in Washington and Canberra, Japan’s historic shift has sparked vigorous debate across capitals in Asia and beyond.
And while the decision to permit the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to engage in collective self-defense represents a landmark moment in the country’s security maturation, Tokyo’s next steps will be more important still. In setting the domestic context for Japan’s new military roles, its leaders’ stance on historical issues will help determine how far its neighbors and partners will go toward supporting or opposing its security evolution.
Strictly speaking, the reinterpretation is unlikely to change very much in practice, at least in the near term. Depending on the legislation, the SDF will be able to aid the defense of allies or partners if they come under attack, but the conditions under which this can be done are restrictive. The situation must pose a clear threat to Japan — not only to a besieged ally — it must be the last resort, and the use of force is limited to the minimum necessary to protect the Japanese people. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ruled out Japan’s involvement in foreign wars, and SDF troops would not deploy to the Korean Peninsula in a contingency without prior consultations with Seoul. The Constitution’s Article 9 — which prohibits Japan from employing force to resolve international disputes — has not changed.
More important than the immediate implications for the roles and missions of the Japanese military is the signal this move sends about the trajectory of Japanese power and national will. Washington, in an era of declining defense budgets and growing war-weariness, has vocally welcomed a more proactive role for its ally. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noted that the move would permit Japan to “engage in a wider range of operations” and “make the U.S.-Japan alliance even more effective,” and a senior White House adviser cited the reinterpretation as emblematic of the “continued maturation of our alliance.”
American policymakers have advocated the move for some two decades. The extent to which yet-to-be-submitted legislation permits Japanese forces greater latitude to act internationally will impact directly the ongoing talks on revisions to the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines. And at a time when East Asia is replete with simmering tensions that impact Japan’s security, from disputes over the Senkaku Islands, to challenges to freedom of navigation, to the latest belligerence in Pyongyang, Japan’s appetite for exercising this latitude may come into play sooner rather than later.
This, of course, is what worries neighbors like China and South Korea. In Beijing, a foreign ministry spokesman questioned whether the decision demonstrates that Japan is “deviating from the path of peaceful development.” A government spokesman in Seoul expressed concern about whether the change is “in line with the basic spirit of [Japan's] pacifist constitution and in a way that is transparent, dispels neighboring countries’ concerns stemming from historical issues and contributes to regional peace and stability.” Even in the United States, voices outside official circles expressed concern; the New York Times, for instance, editorialized that “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has disturbed many in Japan and increased anxiety in Asia by reinterpreting his country’s pacifist postwar Constitution.”
While Washington’s support and criticism in Beijing and Seoul are to be expected, the way in which Japanese leaders deal with other, related issues will help determine the regional and global receptivity to a more militarily proactive Japan. Specifically, a maladroit handling of historical issues — including comfort women and Yasukuni Shrine — and political insensitivity to the lingering concerns of Asian populations will together hinder the more robust defense posture Abe is attempting to establish. This would represent a setback for both Japan and the United States as they seek to maintain stability and promote the rule of law in Asia.
To avoid such a setback, Tokyo should continue to reach out to its neighbors for dialogue and articulate an explicit understanding of the concerns that its military evolution engenders among its neighbors. Continued transparency and efforts to explain Japan’s security changes will prove beneficial in this regard.
The constitutional revision is taking place at a time when Tokyo is slightly increasing the defense budget, changing policies governing the export of weapons and military hardware abroad, and beefing up bilateral security and/or strategic ties with countries like Australia, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam. All of these welcome steps will better enable Japan to become a more active supporter of the rules-based international order, in Asia and beyond.
In setting the right context for a stronger, more proactive Japan, its leaders can demonstrate that the constitutional revision will pave the way for the country to serve as an even more positive force in the region. Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, the danger to Asia does not stem from Japanese militarism. On the contrary, a more robust Japanese military posture will serve not as a problem, but as part of a solution.
Richard Fontaine is president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington. Jeffrey W. Hornung is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The views expressed here are their own.