In the heat of media frenzy over the unsurprising LDP presidential election last week, a National Security Council meeting was held on Sept. 11 with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Defense Minister Taro Kono in attendance.
After the meeting, Abe issued a prime minister’s statement, probably the last of its kind, just five days before the end of his premiership. The document stated that Tokyo is contemplating setting a new direction for the national security policy to cope with missiles targeting Japan.
Initial reports from Tokyo were more critical than cordial. Some wrote that the statement, which suggests “the possibility of Japan acquiring a strike capacity, even if couched in terms of deterrence and defense,” is controversial “given the country’s pacifist Constitution, which limits its military capabilities.”
It is also reported that “The Liberal Democratic Party wants Japan to possess the capability to attack targets in other countries’ territories, while its junior coalition partner, Komeito, firmly opposed to any offensive military expansion, takes a persistently cautious stance.”
No wonder, editorials of major daily newspapers by and large ignored the statement. The only exception was the Sankei Shimbun, which urged the government to expedite its decision-making to acquire both an alternative for the Aegis Ashore missile defense system and an offensive capability that can target enemy bases.
Don’t be misled by those never-changing arguments. Is Abe’s statement really controversial? Does Japan’s Constitution limit its military capabilities? Is a capability to attack targets in other countries’ territories unconstitutional? Is Komeito really opposed to any offensive military capability expansion by Japan? There are strong reasons to doubt them all.
Here is a closer look at the statement. What Abe said in it from what has been reported as controversial should be carefully parsed. The following are the highlights of the statement:
- Abe believes it is necessary to enhance deterrence and thereby further reduce the possibility of an attack against Japan by ballistic missiles and others.
- In order to strengthen the deterrence, the government of Japan has been considering a new course for security policy regarding countering missiles.
- Needless to say, such deliberation is being carried out within the scope of the Constitution and in compliance with international law.
- Japan’s exclusively defense-oriented policy will not change at all. Nor will the basic role and mission sharing between Japan and the United States.
How controversial is the statement?
Hardly. It only sounds controversial if you hear it with the ears of post-World War II utopian pacifism. What Abe wishes to enhance is not strike capability overseas, but rather deterrence power to discourage enemy attacks against Japan. If deterrence is bellicose, there are no peace-loving nations on Earth.
Is there any constitutional limit to Japan’s military might?
Yes, of course. In the case of Japan, its Constitution requires an “exclusively defense-oriented” defense policy. To that extent, the Constitution also allows the possession of minimum strike capabilities just in case deterrence fails.
The exclusively defense-oriented policy, therefore, does not prohibit the possession of strike capabilities for self-defense purposes. If it were not allowed, what deterrence would the nation have and how could it defend itself if it did not have the ability to strike locations in enemy territories where threats capable of targeting Japan originate?
Is striking enemy bases an act of aggression?
The answer is no, for example, if the strike is in legitimate response to an enemy’s armed attack against Japan. If not, no military actions shall be justified. Although every nation has the right to self-defense under the U.N. Charter, not all strikes against enemy bases are justifiable.
Is Komeito a contrarian partner?
Hardly. Komeito has been a responsible and pragmatic coalition partner with the LDP for most of the past 20 years. Although Komeito was originally an anti-LDP pacifist party, it is recently becoming a more center to center-right conservative party with a strong Buddhist background.
How significant is Abe’s statement?
Abe must have harbored the desire for Japan to adopt a “deterrence-oriented” defense posture for years. Reportedly, it was when Kono dismissed the Aegis Ashore anti-missile system in June that Abe finally decided to implement the idea as part of revising the current National Security Strategy.
Unfortunately, Abe’s relapse of his chronic inflammatory bowel disease prevented the process from being completed. This is probably the reason why he convened a series of National Security Council meetings and finalized the statement. The unfinished revision of the National Security Strategy is an urgent matter that needs to be completed by the Suga administration.
A pundit in Tokyo was quoted saying, “By issuing the statement, Abe aims to pave the way for a new defense policy and leave his legacy to the next government.” It’s hard to agree with such a remark, especially when one considers an article titled “American Support for Taiwan Must Be Unambiguous” by Richard Haas and David Sacks.
In this article, Haas and Sacks argue that “ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities. The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.”
They assert that “Washington can make this change in a manner that is consistent with its one-China policy and that minimizes the risk to U.S.-Chinese relations. Indeed, such a change should strengthen U.S.-Chinese relations in the long term by improving deterrence and reducing the chances of war in the Taiwan Strait.”
It’s hard to swallow such arguments, but one thing is for sure: The situation surrounding Japan in East Asia is so rapidly changing that an unpleasant contingency may arise quite unexpectedly. Abe was right in discussing deterrence in his statement and it is Suga’s role to complete Abe’s legacy for Japan’s national security.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.