Marking a historic change in Japan’s pacifist postwar defense posture, two contentious security laws took effect Tuesday that will allow Tokyo to exercise its right to collective self-defense without breaking the Constitution.
Until now, even though that right is endowed to every nation by the United Nations Charter, the pacifist Constitution was widely considered as banning the option in war-renouncing Article 9, until the Abe administration opted to reinterpret it, rather than formally amend it.
Many of those opposed to the changes have called the new laws “war legislation,” fearing the nation will either enter, or be dragged into, military conflicts that are not of its making.
The laws are sure to unnerve neighbors like China, which has increasingly been alarmed by the gradual transformation of the Self-Defense Forces, which are poised to play bigger roles in East and Southeast Asia.
Yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose administration drove the divisive legislature through the Diet despite the biggest protests in recent memory, believes the new framework will bolster the Japan-U.S. Alliance at a time when Japan faces an increasingly turbulent security situation in Asia.
North Korea has recently escalated its provocative nuclear and missile tests and China is challenging the regional order by aggressively flexing its maritime military might.
“The quality of Japan-U.S. alliance has reached the point where we can defend each other from now on,” Abe said during an Upper House budgetary committee session when asked about the laws’ implementation. “Our ties have become much stronger.”
However, the new laws only enable the government to exercise the right to collective defense under certain circumstances, such as mobilizing the SDF to defend an ally, namely the United States, or countries when not doing so could jeopardize Japan’s own safety and security.
For example, SDF personnel may be required to protect U.S. military vessels under such contingencies as all-out war on the Korean Peninsula. Japan could also help remove mines where the U.S. Navy is operating.
The laws also expand the scope of where and to whom the SDF can provide logistical support.
Previously, the SDF could only provide such support to the U.S. military on or near Japanese territory. But the new laws broaden the types of operations and support, allowing for instance, the provision of munitions to other nations if Japan’s security will be threatened by failing to do so.
The implementation of the laws underscores that Abe, whose ambition is to ultimately revise Article 9 of the Constitution, is managing to check off his wish list in a timely manner while his ruling Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition, which wields enormous power, has no viable opposition in the Diet.
The newly launched Democratic Party, which deems the laws unconstitutional and is now the largest opposition force, is stepping up its criticism of the LDP in the run-up to this summer’s crucial Upper House election.
Yet a recent poll by Kyodo News found that more than 67 percent of the respondents have no expectations the patchwork party comprising the former Democratic Party of Japan and Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) can effect change.
Also, among the other opposition parties, there is too much disarray to mount an effective challenge to the ruling coalition.
The public has mixed feelings about the legislation. Demonstrations against the laws, even though sizes have diminished over time, continue outside the Prime Minister’s Office.
According to a recent survey by the conservative daily Sankei Shimbun, some 57 percent of the respondents say the security laws are necessary.
Another survey, by the liberal daily Mainichi Shimbun, found earlier this month that over 45 percent of respondents think the laws are unconstitutional.
In academia, there is also much opposition, with the vast majority of Japanese constitutional scholars saying the changes are unconstitutional.
For its part, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations spoke out Tuesday against the new security laws, saying they violate the Constitution and infringe on the people’s right to live in peace. A group of over 600 lawyers is scheduled to file a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court challenging the constitutionality of the laws next month.
Sensing that public support and acceptance of the laws is fragile, the Abe administration has been careful not to assign the SDF too much action all at once out of fear it may unnerve the public ahead of the Upper House election in July, when the Abe is expected to seek a tighter grip on the Diet so he can amend — rather than reinterpret — the Constitution.
Defense Minister Gen Nakatani last week said that the SDF will not immediately be available to offer protection to U.S. military vessels until the two militaries work out the details.
That could mean the SDF might not be able to take part in the biennial Rim of the Pacific Exercise scheduled this summer. RIMPAC is the world’s largest international maritime warfare drills.
The expansion of the SDF’s role in peacekeeping operation will also be put on hold.
That is because the government has not yet hammered out new rules of engagement, which determine how Japanese troops can respond to armed attacks.
The laws allow SDF personnel on PKO missions to rescue civilians, such as those working for nongovernmental organizations, and assist soldiers of foreign militaries who are in danger.
The SDF is expected to engage in such operations in South Sudan, where Japanese troops have been serving six-month rotations with the United Nations Missions in Sudan (UNMISS) since 2012.
Nakatani said the SDF cannot be trained in time for such missions before the next dispatch, which is scheduled to take place between May and June. Nakatani also said the ministry has not yet decided if such a capability will be achievable even after autumn.