Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes every opportunity to play up the benefits of security legislation that his administration has sent to the Diet and dismisses the potential risks to which the proposed bills could expose the nation and its Self-Defense Forces. He lashes out against some opposition parties’ calling the bills “war legislation” as “irresponsible labeling” and “totally misguided.” He may be trying to avoid alienating a public still largely wary of his administration’s bid to expand Japan’s international security roles. But it would be dishonest for the prime minister not to discuss the potential downside of the legislation, which would usher in a major shift in the nation’s postwar defense posture.
The “legislation for peace and security” amends 10 existing laws to implement his Cabinet’s decision last July to change the government’s long-standing interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution to enable the nation to engage in collective self-defense and significantly expand the scope of SDF overseas missions, including joint operations with the U.S. military. The “international peace support law” is a new blanket piece of legislation that would pave the way for SDF dispatches overseas on missions to provide logistic support for other forces engaged in international military operations.
Abe evaded straightforward answers when, during Wednesday’s one-on-one debate with opposition leaders in the Lower House, Democratic Party of Japan chief Katsuya Okada repeatedly pressed the prime minister to acknowledge the dangers that the legislation could create for the nation and the SDF.
Okada charged that SDF troops dispatched for support of other forces in combat missions would be exposed to greater risks of being involved in the fighting because they could now be deployed much closer to the battlefield — except at the scene of actual fighting — unlike the past practice of dispatching SDF units in such missions only to what were defined as “noncombat zones” or “rear areas” to set them clearly apart from the combatants. While Abe explained that the rules of the SDF’s deployment are being changed so that they can act more quickly to provide support for other forces, he stated that SDF personnel would “naturally choose to operate in areas where they would not face the risk of being involved in fighting as much as possible and where their safety is secured.” The change in the rules of the SDF’s operation, he said, “has nothing to do with risks” for the SDF members in such missions.
The prime minister also dismissed concerns that Japan, by engaging in collective self-defense with its allies, could be drawn into military conflicts started by other countries. “Japan would never be involved in combat activities against its will. It is impossible” for the nation to be drawn into a war between other parties, he said. Citing a hypothetical situation where U.S. naval vessels come under enemy attack in a contingency taking place around Japan but the nation has not been directly attacked, Abe stressed that if the SDF can defend the U.S. vessels through collective self-defense, “the bond that binds the Japan-U.S. alliance will be stronger” and the alliance will provide a more effective deterrence for Japan’s security.
Abe stressed that Japan would not engage in collective self-defense unless the situation meets the conditions spelled out in the legislation — that Japan could resort to “use of force to a minimum extent” when “an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs” and “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.”
He went on to say that “generally Japan would not be permitted to enter the territory or territorial waters of other countries for the purpose of using force or engaging in combat missions.” Still, he indicated that the SDF can engage in a mission, for example, to sweep mines laid out to block sea lanes used to ship crude oil from the Middle East during a contingency in the region as an exception to the principle. He does not clearly explain why such a mission is permissible — which blurs the principle itself. His statement also appears inconsistent with the government’s formal position — adopted earlier this week in reply to a DPJ lawmaker’s question — that the use of force within the territory of another country is not ruled out as long as the situation fulfills the conditions that enable Japan to engage in collective self-defense. Minesweeping prior to the end of a conflict would be considered as a use of force under international law, and the SDF vessels that take part in such a mission could become a target of attack by the force that had laid the mines. Consensus remains elusive even within the ruling coalition as to whether a halt to shipment of oil from the Middle East would constitute a situation that “threatens Japan’s survival.”
Full-scale deliberations on the security legislation are expected to start at a special committee of the Lower House next week. But even the brief exchanges during the one-on-one debate seem to raise more questions than answers about the legislation. Abe said Japan “needs to decide what needs to be decided,” indicating his resolve to get the legislation enacted during the current Diet session. However, legislation of this magnitude must never be railroaded through the Diet using the sheer force of the ruling bloc’s dominant majority.