Tuesday’s decision by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet to reinterpret the Constitution to allow collective self-defense has divided Japan, with some people fearing it would drag the nation into a U.S.-led war.
But in the U.S., the change is being hailed as a positive step, long in development, that will enhance the U.S.-Japan military relationship and Japan’s overall standing in Asia.
“The new policy will enable the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to engage in a wider range of operations and make the U.S.-Japan alliance even more effective,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement. “It also complements our ongoing efforts to modernize our alliance through the revision of our bilateral guidelines for defense cooperation.”
At a press conference on Tuesday in Washington, U.S. State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf welcomed the change.
“It’s not about what the U.S. thinks, it’s about what the people of Japan and the Japanese security establishment have been discussing for some time,” she said, in response to a question about Abe’s comment in the Diet that the move was necessary for strong relations with Washington.
Some U.S. analysts also welcomed the decision. Robert Eldridge, a visiting fellow with the Institute for International Policy Studies in Tokyo, said it will lead to more interoperability between the SDF and the U.S. military, and will bring more transparency to Japan’s defense policy and the bilateral relationship.
“I don’t fear Japan becoming a military threat to the region. The postwar changes to the Constitution greatly fixed the flaws of the Meiji Constitution. These changes — such as the primacy of the parliament and civilian control, among many others — are the reasons for Japanese peace and democracy, not simply Article 9,” Eldridge said.
Richard Samuels, a political science professor and director of the MIT-Japan Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agrees the decision will boost the legitimacy of Japan’s civilian-controlled military.
“[It] enhances the efficacy of the alliance by heightening confidence among Japanese in the U.S. commitment, and further boosts the legitimacy of Japan’s civilian-controlled military. But above all, I think, it is a boost to deterrence. None of these is measurable in hardware or budgetary terms,” Samuels said.
However, those in the U.S. who hope it might mean Japan will assume more of a defense burden could be disappointed, said Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Abe’s announcement is a rather limited set of adjustments to loosen the strict limitations on the situations under which the Japanese military can use force. It’s an important political signal. But it will not relieve U.S. forces from their responsibility for regional stability or open the way for Japanese forces to assume responsibility for the defense of other nations beyond their own,” Smith said.