Japan Unleashed: Tokyo's New Military Ambitions

Looks like Abe means business when it comes to defense...

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan is steadily loosening the shackles of its postwar pacifist constitution. The April announcement of the new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines aims to bolster U.S.-Japanese defense cooperation without preset geographical limits and enables “seamless and effective” alliance responses to security threats. Keeping up the momentum, Prime Minister Abe is in full force to push forward Japan’s defense-reform legislations. On May 14, Japan’s Cabinet endorsed two defense bills that would allow the country’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) to operate under a broader definition of self-defense and play a larger role internationally.

Still, removing Japan’s postwar security restraints is no easy task. To boost Japan’s defense reforms, the Japanese government has to address both international and domestic concerns. In addition to reassuring its neighboring countries that its security reforms will not lead to the rise of Japanese militarism, the Japanese government has to face domestic pressure upfront—general fears in Japan that the country could likely be drawn into wars, doubts that Japan’s security interests are too intertwined with the United States’, and worries that new, ambiguously worded security bills could allow for different interpretations among political parties, which would then impede the law implementation and cause disarray in Japan’s defense activities.

What Is in the Security Bills?

The two security bills, which were adopted by Abe’s cabinet on the 14th, are intended to expand the scope of the SDF’s activities overseas and broaden the areas in which they can operate. The bills are named the kokusai heiwa shien hoan (international peace support bill) and the heiwa anzen hosei seibi hoan (peace and security legislation development bill). The former bill is to amend ten security-related laws to remove the geographical constraint of a current law on contingencies in “areas adjacent to Japan” that was enacted in 1999 in the event of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula. One of the noteworthy laws, for example, is to enable Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, or coming to the aid of a friendly nation under attack. Other situations where SDF can be allowed to use forces include rescue missions on saving Japanese nationals caught up in overseas emergencies, missions to defend warships and other hardware of nations working to defend Japan, peacekeeping operations, and missions on humanitarian assistance. The latter bill is to establish a permanent law that allows the government to send the SDF overseas to provide logistics support to a foreign military in armed combat and to replace the current temporary laws that must be enacted each time the SDF is dispatched on support missions in multinational operations.

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Although the core concept of the two bills is intended to grant the SDF more freedom in its activities, there are restrictions. Based on last summer’s reinterpretation of the Constitution, Japan is permitted to deploy the SDF to aid countries with close ties only if three conditions are met: 1) an armed attack on the foreign country “threatens Japan’s survival” or “raises clear dangers” to the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of Japanese citizens; 2) there is no other means than the use of force to protect Japan and its citizens; and 3) the use of force should be confined to the minimum necessary. Examples of such situations, according to Abe, could be a mine-sweeping operation in the Strait of Hormuz in the Middle East, through which 80 percent of crude oil exports to Japan pass.

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While the envisioned law would enable dispatching SDF elements without having to enact special legislation each time, the law has a time limit and must be extended with a Diet vote to keep the missions going. Specifically, when dispatching SDF personnel to give logistic support to a foreign force, such a move has to meet three conditions: 1) dispatching SDF personnel abroad would require prior Diet approval each time; 2) the SDF’s activities must be in accordance with UN General Assembly or UN Security Council resolutions; and 3) the SDF would be barred from being sent to areas where combat is taking place.

What Do the Security Bills Mean for Japan’s Security Posture If Passed?

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