Shinichi Kitaoka (Paul Kallender-Umezu/staff)
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TOKYO — On May 15, the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security recommended that Japan reinterpret its constitution to allow for some limited right to collective self-defense, opening the door for what is seen as the most important change in Japan’s security policy since the Self-Defense Force’s establishment.
As acting chair of the panel, Shinichi Kitaoka, University of Tokyo emeritus professor and a former ambassador to the United Nations, now president of the International University of Japan, is widely recognized as the leading intellectual force behind the reinterpretation.
Q. What is the background to your involvement in this issue?
A. Well, I have been a student of military history and strategic thinking since I was a graduate student. But my thinking about collective self-defense-related issues specifically began when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait [in 1990]. Very few Japanese scholars advocated that Japan should participate in the multinational forces. I realized that Japan was suffering from what I’d call “excessive pacifism,” which was negating real opportunities to contribute to global peace. At the time, I only argued that Japan should revise its self-defense laws so we could assist the multinational forces in terms of logistical support, transportation and minesweeping. It was difficult for us to play any sort of positive role because of the ban on the right to collective self-defense.
Q. Why the need for a second advisory panel when the first incarnation in [Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe’s first administration already provided four rationales for revision?
A. In 2007 we were just facing North Korean belligerency. Since then, we have had the eruption of the Senkaku incidents, the persistent entry of Chinese ships into Japanese territorial waters, and other provocations and unilateral actions. Many worrying developments have happened with North Korean missiles and nuclear tests. Behind that, the Chinese military budget that we know of has quadrupled in the last decade. Frankly, the security situation has deteriorated significantly and rapidly. Given the threats, Mr. Abe had to give us a broader remit.
Q. So, it’s fair to say that you have been a — or the — driving force behind each panel?
A. I was a core member in the first panel. But since [panel chairman] Ambassador [Shuji] Yanai is living in Hamburg, I was formally appointed as acting chair.
Q. What were the main issues you have with Article 9 of Japan’s US-drafted constitution?
A. Look at the first half of Article 9 [“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”]. I strongly support this. It is the same as the UN Charter. The commitment to finding peaceful resolutions to international conflicts represents a fundamental process for humankind after two terrible world wars. This means not only Japan ... but all countries throw themselves behind this.
The second half of Article 9 states that Japan should not have any military forces. First of all, it’s very ridiculous. During the Korean War and with the San Francisco Peace Treaty we regained our status as a sovereign nation; more or less everyone thought we should have our own military forces. So then, in 1954 the government changed its interpretation and decided that Japan can possess minimum defense forces ... so this was a big change.
However, in 1972, the government decided that we can maintain a minimum military defense with the individual right of self-defense only, and without the collective right of self-defense. As a security expert, even in terms of providing a minimum right of defense, this should not preclude some right to collective defense. Actually, this is an essential concept enshrined in Article 51 of the UN charter.
Q. Some argue that changing the constitutional interpretation to allow the right is a first step to a Japan that abandons its historical commitment to peace and toward rearmament.
A. Article 51 originated from Latin American countries to defend themselves. Certainly some major powers have abused this power — for example, the Soviet invasion of Hungary or Czechoslovakia. But this sort of right tends not to be used by small and medium powers. The simple question is this: Do you think we can protect ourselves through the simple right of individual self-defense alone? The answer has to be “no.” Only the US, the Russian Federation and China can do this.
If Japan is only to have an individual right of self-defense, then at some point it might need to hugely build up its power. A case of a small state in our neighborhood that relies on individual self-defense is North Korea. They know they can’t rely on China. Therefore, they are determined to develop nuclear weapons.
While the US-Japan alliance is robust, it can be discontinued. Collective rights allow us a better deterrent without huge increased spending. We are asking for the option to exercise the right in an emergency. We are not saying that we should use that right. We have had the right to use our individual right of self-defense for half a century, but we have not used it. The same logic applies to the right to collective self-defense.
Q. Put simply, having collective rights stops the necessity of Japan rearming?
A. Yes, that’s right.
Q. But how will collective rights help balance regional security concerns?
A. I started my career analyzing Japan’s imperial military buildup, and there are analogies with China. Whenever China finds a weakness, for example, when the Soviets withdrew from Cam Rahn Bay, the Chinese quickly targeted the Paracel islands. When the US left Subic Bay, they went to the Spratleys. China has quadrupled its military spending every decade. Peace can only be maintained through the maintenance of some kind of military deterrent power and ... a balance of power.
One of the reasons why Japan expanded militarily in the 1930s was that there were not enough strong signals internationally or determination to oppose it. If the US and Great Britain had shown more firmness, particularly after the Manchurian incident, then that would have strengthened the liberal community in Japan. But the lack of clear signals from the US and UK eventually fueled the expansionism.
The fact is that Southeast Asian countries are very much supportive to this change. Secondly, South Korea is actually turning quite neutral. We have made very clear that we may exercise our collective right if we are asked to, but it will be impossible for us to exercise that right on the Korean Peninsula unless [South Korea] asks us to.
Q. The circumstances of China’s 2007 anti-satellite weapon launch, which shocked the international community, suggest miscommunication within the Chinese elite.
A. Yes. And we need to understand how quickly situations can change. A few years ago we used to worry about the threat of cyber crime. Now we are dealing daily with cyberattacks performed directly or indirectly by national governments. It used to be regarded as some sort of dangerous game by cyber kids.
But moving to the maritime domain, China is not accustomed to obeying well-established rules here. They are rather new on the sea. Being a maritime power means recognizing accompanying obligations.
Q. So not having the right of collective self-defense amounts to de facto appeasement?
A. Well, you might make that argument. Will having the right to exercise the right provoke China? I don’t think so. Because, you know, having this right is actually a matter of course.
China may well feel provoked if Japan develops nuclear weapons or aircraft carriers or strategic strike capabilities. Specialists will certainly pay attention if Japan develops a long-range strike ability. But the fact is that Japan’s defense budget this year rose 2.8 percent. China’s rose 12.2 percent. So our defense expenditure rise is negligible, and it comes after a decade of falling budgets.
In the 1930s, Japan expanded and took chances whenever it saw an opportunity. China’s expansion is continuing. I don’t think they have a comprehensive strategy, like Japan in its expansionist phase, with the Army and Navy with different visions about how to expand. This makes the situation more dangerous.
China is also cognizant that the long-term economic prognosis for the economy is not bright. It is common for a dictatorship to distract its populace with external threats to justify and create crises. But the Chinese military is also a professional institution, and if they see that Japan and the US are standing firm and will oppose any illegal activity or expansion, they will think twice.
Q. Following Operation Tomodachi, when the US offered extensive support after the March 2011 East Japan earthquake, Gen. [Shigeru] Iwasaki, chief of staff of the Self-Defense Forces Joint Staff, noted how much more work was needed for Japan to effectively cooperate with US forces.
A. Actually the Operation Tomodachi disaster relief cooperation with the US was a great success and had a strong deterrence effect. Chinese experts were shocked at how closely and well our two forces worked together and how close they are. By making collective defense possible, we hope that we can make our relationship even closer, and this will be a very positive sign for neighboring countries. ■