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Bills to upgrade the Defense Agency to a ministry and revise the Self-Defense Forces Law are likely to be enacted in the current Diet session. The revisions could change the character of the SDF, which has operated under a strict “defense only” policy. Inasmuch as they are closely related to the workings of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, it is regrettable that the revisions have sparked little public debate.

The most important point in the bills is an upgrade of the SDF’s overseas activities — regarded thus far as peripheral missions — to main missions. Specifically, missions such as emergency humanitarian relief activities abroad, peacekeeping operations under the United Nations and rear-support activities for the U.S. armed forces around Japan in emergency situations would become the SDF’s primary missions in addition to national defense.

Current SDF Law poses no impediments to the SDF’s carrying out these missions, but the change in the SDF Law will be more than symbolic. The move to revise the SDF Law is taking place at a time when there is a talk of enacting a law that would enable SDF units to be sent overseas without the prior approval of the Diet. This would certainly begin to undermine civilian control of the SDF. It could pave the way for a separate law aimed at skipping Diet approval altogether.

Even if that doesn’t happen, the revision would lead to substantial changes in SDF practices. Under the current SDF Law, the SDF procures weapons needed only for national defense under the strict defense-only policy.

Under this policy, Japan maintains minimum defense capabilities, is committed to hitting back only after it has been attacked, will not become a military threat to other nations and will not deploy military forces abroad. The United States is to play the offensive role during a military emergency.

But if the SDF missions overseas are upgraded to main missions, the SDF will be able to possess long-range aircraft for the purpose of transporting SDF members involved in overseas missions. There may also arise a move to relax weapons-use restrictions placed on SDF members abroad.

In the worst case, other nations could view the SDF’s possession of long-range transport aircraft as a preliminary step toward gradually acquiring the ability to project its power abroad, which would run counter to the “defense only” policy.

At present, the Defense Agency is an external part of the Cabinet Office, whose head is the prime minister. The Defense Agency chief first must consult with, and present a request to, the prime minister if he or she wants a Cabinet meeting to consider defense-related legislation, SDF personnel affairs or SDF mobilization in the event of an attack on Japan. The defense chief also needs to go through a similar procedure with the prime minister before he or she asks the Finance Ministry for funding. If the Defense Agency becomes the Defense Ministry, the defense minister will be freed from these restrictions.

This means that strict control of the SDF by the prime minister, who has been elected by the Diet, would be somewhat weakened. Of course, the prime minister would still retain the authority to command and control the SDF as well as to issue an SDF mobilization order. But if part of the power to control the SDF is transferred to an official who is closer to the military organization than the prime minister, civilian control could be gradually lost.

The government has explained that the purpose of the bills is to help raise SDF morale. Yet it is an uncontested fact that many people recognize and are already grateful to SDF members for their activities. The bills must be looked at in the current political context. Their submission to the Diet, and the parliamentary deliberations on them, coincide with moves that threaten to loosen Japan’s self-restraint on military activities.

For example, some politicians have called for discussions on whether to arm Japan with nuclear weapons, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has urged easing the prohibition on exercising the right to collective defense. Additionally, Mr. Abe has called for studying whether Japan can, or should, shoot down a long-range ballistic missile believed to be flying toward the U.S.

By upholding the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution and the defense-only policy, Japan has maintained its determination not to repeat its aggression against other countries and not to become a military power. Therefore, it has become all the more important for the Diet and the public to carefully watch the SDF to ensure it operates in accordance with the nation’s constitutional principles.

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