Japan’s post-World War II defense posture underwent a major shift this week as the Abe administration’s security legislation, enacted last year amid an outcry from the opposition camp in the Diet, charges of unconstitutionality from scholars and a sharply divided public opinion, took effect. The set of two laws enables Japan to engage in collective self-defense, which the government had banned for decades under the war-renouncing Constitution, and significantly expands the scope and alters the nature of Self-Defense Forces’ overseas missions.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touted the implementation of the legislation as an event of “historic importance that makes peace and security of our country even more secure” and “upgrades our deterrence and enables the nation to proactively contribute more than ever to peace and stability of regional and international communities.” At the same time, he stressed the importance of such actions winning a broad public support.
Whether the legislation enjoys widespread approval may still be up in the air six months after its enactment last September. Last month, five opposition parties jointly submitted a bill to scrap the laws — though Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance, which has a dominant grip on the Diet, seems set to ignore it. Popular approval ratings of Abe’s Cabinet, which plunged sharply last fall as his ruling alliance rammed the legislation through the Diet, have since largely recovered. A Kyodo News poll over the weekend showed that 49.9 percent of the respondents said they “do not value” the legislation, as opposed to 39 percent who said they do. In a Kyodo survey last month, 38 percent of the pollees said the legislation should be abolished, while another 47 percent said it should not be scrapped. Rallies by civic groups calling for its abolition continue, while there are moves by lawyers and experts to take legal action against the laws.
The administration may be aware that the legislation and the changes in defense policies it entails remain controversial. The government does not plan to immediately order the SDF to engage in new missions made possible under the law, apparently wary of the potential impact that such missions could have on voter sentiment ahead of the Upper House election this summer. But if indeed the administration is serious, as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga puts it, about winning popular understanding of the legislation, it should come forward and explain to voters what specific missions it plans to have the SDF engage in under the laws.
Until 2014, successive governments had maintained that Japan possesses the right under international law to engage in collective self-defense — defending an ally under attack even when the nation itself is not under attack — but that the postwar Constitution’s Article 9, which renounces “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” prohibits the nation from exercising the right, though it does not deny Japan the right to defend itself. That position changed when the Abe administration, in a July 2014 Cabinet decision, reinterpreted the Constitution to say that Japan can engage in collective self-defense when an attack on its ally threatens Japan’s own survival.
Many constitutional scholars charged that the security legislation based on the Cabinet decision violated the Constitution. Abe essentially dismissed the charges as his ruling alliance went ahead and pushed the legislation through the Diet. His Cabinet’s decision to change the interpretation of the Constitution to suit its policy needs raised criticism that such an act runs counter to the principle that the government’s power is bound by the Constitution. Members of the administration said the reinterpretation is justified by the changes in the international security environment, in which no country can any longer defend itself by acting alone. Many of these questions about the legislation were not fully addressed and continue to lack consensus answers.
The legislation consists of two laws. The “legislation for peace and security” amends 10 existing laws, including the SDF Law, the 1999 law on Japan’s logistical support for the U.S. forces in contingencies in areas surrounding Japan, as well as one defining Japan’s response to armed attacks. The other is the “international peace support law” — blanket legislation that paves the way for the dispatch of SDF troops abroad to provide logistical support of other forces engaged in missions to “eliminate threats to peace and security of the international community.”
The legislation expands the scope of Japan’s military actions outside its territory in a broad range of areas, but the conditions that trigger such actions are only broadly defined — leaving much to the discretion of the government in power. For example, the government says it allows Japan to engage in collective self-defense action in minimum, limited ways only when an attack on a country in a close relationship with Japan “threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn the people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and “when there is no other appropriate means available to repel the attack.” What exact situations constitute a “threat to Japan’s survival” will be left to the administration in power to determine. During the Diet deliberations, Abe repeatedly cited minesweeping in the Strait of Hormuz in the event of a Mideast contingency as an example of Japan’s possible collective self-defense mission.
The legislation widens and deepens the scope of the SDF’s joint operations with the U.S. military, in accordance with the new guideline of defense cooperation between Japan and the United States, revised in April 2015 even before the security legislation was submitted to the Diet. The geographical boundaries to the bilateral defense cooperation, which were effectively limited to undefined “areas surrounding Japan” in the 1999 law, were removed, technically paving the way for support for Japan’s allies around the globe in contingencies that gravely affects Japan’s security. The Abe administration boasts that the closer defense cooperation with the U.S. solidifies the security alliance with Washington and contributes to Japan’s deterrence. It brushes aside concerns about the potential risks from Japan being drawn deeper into the U.S.-led security architecture.
The nature of SDF missions to support other forces in international conflict also changes. Whereas the SDF units in previous missions in support of multinational forces in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and those related to the Iraq War were deployed to what were defined as “noncombat” zones, they can now be deployed much closer to the battlefield — if not to the actual battle sites — on missions that include the supply of ammunition to combat forces and refueling of fighter jets, making it harder to separate them from the “use of force” that is banned under the Constitution.
The Abe administration cited China’s aggressive maritime postures and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as concrete examples of the changing regional security climate. Since the security legislation was enacted, China has continued to send vessels into waters around Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea as well as expand its activities in disputed waters in the South China Sea. North Korea has defied international sanctions with its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile tests. But it remains unclear whether the security legislation effectively addresses such security concerns for Japan.
The implementation of the security legislation does not immediately expand Japan’s international military roles. The laws that took effect midnight Monday only set the stage. If Abe and his administration really think public support is key for Japan to assume the new roles, the government should explain what specific actions that the nation will take under the legislation and seek an endorsement. We must keep a close eye on what the government intends to do.