Questions of self-defense

A set of bills on security — prepared by the ruling coalition with the aim of implementing the Abe Cabinet’s decision last July to enable Japan to engage in collective self-defense — will no doubt be the main focus of the current Diet session. The Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito have resumed talks to set the basic framework of the legislation by the end of March before tabling it in the latter stage of the legislative session that will last through late June.

Yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe barely mentioned the legislation in his lengthy key policy speech to the Diet on Thursday, essentially only saying that in order to “protect the lives and happiness of the people … under radically changing international circumstances,” the government will seek to establish security legislation that will enable the nation to “respond to all possible situations in a seamless manner.”

The Abe administration may be trying to remain low-key on the issue until the government’s fiscal 2015 budget has been approved by the Diet. There is also speculation that the coalition wants to avoid pushing too hard on the issue and thus having an adverse impact on public opinion before the nationwide series of local elections in April. The issue continues to sharply divide voter opinion in media polls, although Abe insists that the proof that his Cabinet decision last year won a mandate from voters is in the ruling bloc’s sweeping victories in December’s Lower House election.

The planned legislative package, including a revision to the Self-Defense Force Law, will implement the decision by Abe’s Cabinet to change the government’s long-standing interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution. The change allows Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense or to defend an ally under attack even if Japan itself is not under direct attack, thereby paving the way for expanding the nation’s military roles to outside its territory.

The prime minister needs to be ready for an open debate in the Diet and to answer all questions and concerns about his controversial decision, which marks a major change in the nation’s postwar defense posture.

Although the Cabinet decision last July was adopted on the basis of an agreement between the LDP and Komeito, differences remain between the two parties on the scope of Japan’s overseas military operations.

That alone is indicative of the vague definition of the conditions under which Japan’s participation in collective self-defense might be justified, and to the wide discretion the administration would have in interpreting conditions as justifying Japan taking military action aboard.

According to the Cabinet decision, Japan could engage in collective self-defense when an armed attack on another country with which Japan has close relations “poses a clear danger to the very existence of our nation and threatens to fundamentally overthrow the people’s lives, freedom and the right to pursue happiness.” The decision on whether a particular situation poses such a danger will most likely be left to the government.

Abe has repeatedly said there should not be any geographical limitation on the dispatch of SDF on collective self-defense mission overseas. In reply to an opposition lawmaker’s question if Japan would respond to a U.S. request to have the SDF take part in a mission on the other side of the world, Abe stated in a recent Diet session that SDF missions would not be ruled out for geographical reasons. Komeito, on the other hand, takes the position that the impact of a particular situation on Japan’s national security would decrease the further it is from Japan.

There are also differences of opinion on which scenarios should prompt Japan to join in collective self-defense missions overseas. Abe would not rule out, for example, having the SDF participate in minesweeping operations if mines laid in the Strait of Hormuz during a conflict situation resulted in a halt in oil shipments from the Middle East. Japan’s participation in this hypothetical scenario would be justified on the grounds that economic losses from a cutoff in crude oil supplies could threaten the nation’s very survival.

It remains to be seen whether ambiguities over the conditions of participation will be clarified in the planned legislation to eliminate room for expansion of the SDF’s overseas role at the government’s discretion.

Also at issue is a bid by the Abe administration and the LDP to create a permanent law enabling the dispatch of SDF units on overseas missions to provide logistical support for other countries’ military forces during an international conflict.

In the past, the government has enacted special temporary laws each time Japan sent SDF units overseas for such purposes. For example, Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels were dispatched to refuel the naval ships of countries taking part in multinational operations in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. And Ground Self-Defense Force troops were dispatched for reconstruction missions, as well as Air Self-Defense Force aircraft for transport missions, following the Iraq War.

Komeito is said to be wary of establishing a blanket law that obviates the need to enact a special law each time to enable such SDF missions because of concerns that doing so could remove a brake on the expansion of a mission.

The government and the LDP are reportedly trying to win over the coalition partner by making it mandatory for the government to obtain Diet approval before each mission, although some LDP lawmakers are said to be insisting that the Diet’s OK after the fact should be enough so that the government can respond quickly when the need for such missions arises. Another matter for discussion would be whether the dispatch of SDF units on an overseas mission should be contingent on the content of United Nations Security Council resolutions pertaining to the conflict in question.

Last year’s Cabinet decision has expanded the scope of the SDF’s activities in such missions. Previously SDF units were deployed only in “rear-area” or “noncombat” zones to avoid the risk of their being involved in fighting. The Cabinet decision paves the way for SDF troops to supply materials to the military forces of other nations involved in combat as long as the logistical support is not provided at the scene of actual combat.

All these questions should be subjected to Diet scrutiny and thoroughly debated when the package of security legislation is proposed. Abe must engage in open debate about what these changes will mean for Japan, instead of shrouding the issue in closed-door talks limited to ruling coalition members.