Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to assert Japan's right to collective self-defense, in which the country would come to the aid of another nation under attack if certain conditions are met. (John Thys / Getty Images)
TOKYO — By the end of this week, a key panel will recommend Japan adopt the right to collective self-defense, a move that would fundamentally change Japan’s deterrence posture, according to a senior member of the Japanese government who requested anonymity.
The Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security, which first convened Feb. 8, 2013, under the express wish of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to push the changes through, will provide the parameters within which the government will reinterpret Japan’s constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense under certain circumstances and to come to the aid of another nation under attack.
Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, called this “a major change in one of the basic principles of Japan’s post-war defense policy.
“If we can use this new opportunity well ... we’ll be able to maintain the balance of power in the region against the might of China,” he said.
Under present interpretation of Article 9 of the postwar Japanese constitution, Japan chooses specifically not to exercise its right of collective self-defense that is allowed under Article 51 of the UN Charter.
Instead, a series of decisions by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, which acts as legal council to the Cabinet, strictly limited Japan to only the right of individual self-defense while maintaining the minimum force necessary to achieve that.
However, following the advisory panel’s recommendations, the Cabinet will reinterpret the constitution to allow for collective self-defense, with legislation to allow the Self-Defense Forces to exercise the right as early as this fall, the source said.
The recommendations come on top of a slew of other major changes by the Abe administration, including the inauguration of the National Security Council (NSC), a new State Secrets Protection Law, a first National Security Strategy and new National Defense Program Guidelines, all from last December, which add up to extraordinarily rapid advances in pursuit of Abe’s nationalist agenda to “normalize” Japan.
The NSC is designed to speed up changes in times of crisis and the new guidelines focus defense on protecting Japan’s Nansei Shoto, or string of islands that stretch far south and west almost to Taiwan and are aimed directly at countering Chinese expansionism amid growing territorial disputes with that country, particularly with the Senkaku Islands.
The pace and perceived nature of these moves have stoked opposition both domestically — polls repeatedly show that a majority of Japanese people are against the change in interpretation — and from China in particular, which characterizes the change as a step toward rearmament.
Critics argue, among other things, that assuming the right to collective self-defense is unnecessary since Japan is protected by the US under the US-Japan Security Treaty and that such a move is provocative to China and thus destabilizing.
Proponents argue that Japan’s present limitations are too strict, so Japanese forces on overseas UN peacekeeping missions, for example, cannot protect other forces they are working with if they are attacked, thus severely hampering Japan’s usefulness as a regional US alliance partner. They point out that Japan is the only nation in the world that refuses to exercise a right that is allowed in the UN charter, the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty and the US-Japan Security Alliance.
Those in favor of the change also argue that allowing the exercise of the right to collective defense will come with a series of restrictions that make nonsense of claims that Japan is rearming.
In a May 7 meeting, the advisory panel is reported to have added a sixth “brake” or condition that must be met before a decision to exercise the right is taken.
Under these conditions, Japan will consider exercising the right only when:
■A close partner is subject to an illegal attack.
■ Such a use of force against the partner poses a clear and major threat to Japan’s security.
■ The partner has made a clear request that Japan come to its aid.
■ Japan has the express permission of any other country allowing its forces to pass through.
■The use is approved by the Diet.
■The sixth condition is now understood to be that the level of the use of force exercised is judged to be both necessary and proportional by the NSC.
The recommendations are actually the second attempt by Abe to boost Japan’s deterrent capabilities against increasing threats that were initially seen as mainly coming from North Korea when a first incarnation of the panel reported in 2007, during his first administration. That report concluded that Japan needed to reinterpret its constitution to meet four contingencies: Japan could defend US vessels on the high seas; intercept a ballistic missile or missiles targeting the United States; use weapons in international peace operations; and be able to offer rear logistics support to foreign contingents during peacekeeping operations if needed.
Since 2007, however, Japan’s security situation has worsened considerably, particularly with the need to deter Chinese expansionism in its territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, the senior Japanese government source said, making it even more vital for Japan to speed up the reinterpretation.
Faced with this situation, Michishita said any move to promote the right to exercise collective self-defense would be a stabilizing action for the region, and reassure the US and regional partners.
“If we have the option to exercise this right, we’ll be able to make Japan a better partner in a region-wide security community,” Michishita said. “It creates a chance to play a larger and more important security role and contribute to the stability of the region by deterring the use of force, thus once more re-ensuring Japan’s security.” ■