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?
The two security bills still require the approval of the current Diet session to take effect, which is expected to undergo a heated debate between the ruling coalition, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Komeito party, and the major opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). However, if passed, the security bills will carry four significant meanings for Japan’s defense posture. First, due to the expansion of the scope of the SDF on operations with foreign forces overseas—from Japan’s exercising the right to collective self-defense to joint missions on humanitarian assistance—Japan would substantially shift away from its postwar defensive posture, which Japan has self-imposed to only allow the SDF to attack an enemy country when Japan is under attack. Second, the security bills would support Prime Minister Abe’s ambitions for Japan to become a proactive contributor to international peace. In his remarks on April 29 before a Joint Meeting of the U.S. Congress, Prime Minister Abe reiterated Japan’s role in “proactive contribution to peace based on the principle of international cooperation.” Third, the security bills would put teeth to the decision made by Abe’s cabinet last summer to reinterpret the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense. Last, in accord with the new U.S.-Japanese defense guidelines, the security bills would boost cooperation between the SDF and U.S. forces. As Prime Minister Abe elucidated in his speech on April 29, by “enhanc[ing] the legislative foundations,” Japan will be much more able to provide a “seamless response for all levels of crisis.”
Pressures from Within
Although Abe has declared that Japan will “never become entangled in a war being fought by the United States,” there are still ongoing concerns that the security bills would increase the likelihood of Japan being drawn into combat overseas as Japan exercises its right to collective self-defense. Moreover, since many of the proposed reforms aim to remove restrictions on the SDF’s joint missions with the United States—as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga of Japan stressed that the bills are designed to “boost its military alliance with the U.S.”—serious doubts have been raised over whether the security bills would in fact serve the United States’ security interests rather than Japan’s, contributing to the peace of the United States, not that of Japan. At the same time, there are fears about the vaguely worded phrases used in the security bills. The ambiguous wording in the bills could allow for different interpretations within the ruling coalitions, as well as between the LDP and DPJ, which would then impede the law implementation and create disarray in Japan’s defense activities. Particularly, when asked in what conditions Japan can use the right to collective self-defense, the bills note that Japan can resort to collective self-defense only when there is a “clear danger” to the country’s survival due to an armed attack on a country with which Tokyo has close ties and there are “no other means” to protect Japanese citizens. But how can one define a situation that constitutes a “clear danger” to Japan’s survival and in which “no other means” can protect Japanese citizens? So far, the bills do not offer an answer.
In fact, when Abe’s cabinet announced its endorsement of the two security bills on May 14, there were hundreds of protesters rallying before the prime minister’s office. The background of the protesters varied, from representatives of antiwar groups, to labor unions and opposition lawmakers. Public opinions also show that there is a spilt on Abe’s endeavor to enact new security legislations. According to a Kyodo News poll released on April 30, 2015, 48.4 percent of the respondents opposed Abe’s bid to enact legislation for Japan to play a greater security role based on the new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines. Another poll released in March also showed that 45 percent of the Japanese people opposed the idea of Japan’s exercising its right to collective self-defense, while 40.6 percent of them backed it.
Despite the domestic concerns, Abe’s cabinet and the ruling LDP are determined to embark on a shift in Japan’s defense postures. While an intensive debate is expected during the current Diet session over the two security legislations, the ruling camp and the government are planning to extend the current session by setting up a special panel to ensure the passage of the two bills. With the biggest opposition DPJ against the panel’s establishment, arguing the “thoughtlessness” of the government to put ten bills together in a package, the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga continued to persuade the opposition parties to “engage in constructive deliberations” during the Diet session.
Emily S Chen is a Silas Palmer Fellow with the Hoover Institution and a Young Leader with the Pacific Forum CSIS. Emily tweets @emilyshchen.