Members of the Abe administration appear to be getting around key questions about the controversial package of security legislation as Lower House debate got into full swing over the past week. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is sticking to the obvious as he tries to set the parameters for overseas missions by the Self-Defense Forces in their expanded role involving international security, while key Cabinet members evade going into specifics as if in fear their statements could tie Japan’s hands in responding to future security situations.
The Abe administration is bent on getting the legislation enacted during the current Diet session on the strength of the ruling coalition’s Diet majority, but public support and understanding of the bills is apparently not gaining steam. In a Kyodo News poll taken just as the Lower House debate kicked off late last month, 81 percent of the respondents said they did not think the government had sufficiently explained the bills, and 68 percent said the legislation, if enacted, would increase the risk of Japan getting drawn into war — which Abe vehemently denies. About 48 percent of the pollees said they opposed the legislation while 35 percent expressed support.
The two bills are aimed at implementing the Abe Cabinet’s decision last year to allow Japan to engage in collective self-defense — by changing the government’s long-standing interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution — and significantly expand the scope of the SDF’s overseas missions. Japan will be able to attempt to militarily repel an armed attack against an ally even when the nation itself is not under attack — if it determines that the situation poses a threat to Japan’s survival.
The legislation removes the geographical boundaries of SDF missions to provide logistic support tor U.S. forces responding to overseas situations that gravely affect Japan’s security, and Abe confirmed that it’s possible for such missions to take place in the Middle East or Indian Ocean. When SDF personnel are sent abroad to provide support for other militaries engaged in international security operations, they could now be deployed much closer to the battlefield — except at the actual scene of battle — whereas the activities of SDF members in previous such missions were restricted to “noncombat” zones. It is obvious that SDF members will be exposed to greater risks as the scope of their missions expand.
Still, both Abe and Defense Minister Gen Nakatani refuse to accept that the legislation raises the risks for the SDF troops. Abe criticizes the opposition camp for not seeing the forest for the trees in its attempt to highlight the dangers for SDF members. But even an LDP lawmaker involved in crafting the security legislation says it’s undeniable that the SDF could be exposed to greater risks as its role is expanded. Their aversion to straight talk in the Diet is one factor that clouds the public’s understanding of the legislation.
The public remains wary of the security legislation because it remains unclear how far Japan’s international security role will expand. During the Lower House interpellation, Abe said Japan will make “independent judgments” on overseas deployments of the SDF; that such missions would be commensurate with the SDF’s capabilities, equipment and experience; and that the nation would first explore diplomatic efforts to resolve situations. He was responding to a friendly question from a member of his Liberal Democratic Party’s coalition ally, Komeito, who was apparently trying to help the prime minister refute the criticism that Japan would not be able to turn down a request from the U.S. for an SDF dispatch.
But Abe was only stating the obvious, and what he said would not serve as any parameter defining how Japan will make a judgment on an overseas deployment. Equally vague and broadly defined are the conditions that could trigger Japan to resort to acts of collective self-defense.
The government says Japan can engage in the “minimum necessary use of force” not only during an armed attack on Japan but also when such an attack on another country with which Japan has close ties “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.”
When pressed by an opposition lawmaker to describe the criteria for such action in more concrete terms, Abe only replied that the government would “make objective and rational judgment by putting together all relevant information.” What constitutes a “threat to Japan’s survival” would likely be left to the discretion of the administration in power.
Abe and other key members of the administration appear to be using different sets of rhetoric that fit their needs. Defense chief Nakatani said the use of force by the SDF in another country’s territory is possible as long as it meets the conditions spelled out for Japan to engage in collective self-defense.
But Abe said deployment of the SDF for use of force in another country is “generally prohibited” — with the exception of an operation to sweep mines in the Strait of Hormuz, which he reiterates is permissible on the grounds that it is a “passive and limited” act to be carried out “in an area where combat activities are effectively not taking place.” He went on to say that his administration has “currently no other example in mind” of the SDF’s use of force in other’s territory than a minesweeping mission in the strategic Hormuz Strait.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference last month it is legally possible for Japan to launch a pre-emptive strike on a military base in another country to prevent an impending missile attack on Japan. Abe later said the government has no such pre-emptive strike in mind. Nakatani said Monday it would be legally possible for Japan to provide logistic support for a coalition of countries engaged in military operations against the Islamic State radical group. Abe has repeatedly said Japan would not provide such support “as a policy,” and the defense chief altered his statement the following day to say the government “has no such plans as a policy judgment.”
It appears that Abe is trying to impress on the public that deploying the SDF’s on overseas missions would be restricted, while other members of the Cabinet try to leave such options as open-ended as possible. The administration’s aversion to going into specifics on what would prompt Japan to take collective self-defense actions could also be linked to its desire to avoid tying the government’s hands in future situations. That may be understandable as a tactic to get the legislation through the Diet, but it could leave the public clueless as to how the nation’s defense posture would change if the bills are enacted.
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