TOKYO — With a majority vote from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner, New Komeito, Japan’s House of Representatives Thursday passed two bills that will allow Japan limited rights of collective self-defense (CSD), following Wednesday's decision by the Lower House’s Special Committee on Security Legislation to approve the bills.
Just after the vote, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe justified the legislation, saying, “These bills were absolutely necessary to prevent war.” He promised that the LDP would “do its utmost to carefully explain the bills and further gain public understanding” during deliberations in the Upper House.
The bills were passed in a near half-empty chamber because the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, the Japan Innovation Party, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party all staged a walkout in protest.
The security bills revise 10 existing laws and expand the scope of the activities of Japan’s Self-Defense Force (SDF) enabling it, for example, to extend logistical support for militaries of other countries engaged in military operations, even when such actions are not directly linked to Japan's security, and to come to the aid of an ally under attack.
The first bill revises the current Law on a Situation in the Areas Surrounding Japan, which restricts the SDF to supporting the US only in areas close to Japan, for example, a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
The second bill will allow the SDF to support militaries of other countries as needed, for example, minesweeping in a war in the Middle East.
Narushige Michishita, a Japan security expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said the bills were the minimum needed for Japan to fulfill its commitments to the region and to serve the US-Japan security alliance. This April, the two countries revised their guidelines for the first time in 17 years with Japan promising to offer “seamless cooperation” with the US military. The legislation also builds on a promise by Abe when he came to power in 2012 to promote a more “proactive” defense policy.
“The reality of the bills is that they will give Japan a minimal role to support wartime minesweeping operations in a theater of war, for example, in a North Korean contingency, along the North Korean coastline,” Michishita said.
“Second, facing China, which is not anticipating a war scenario, the legislation gives Japan a better hand in how to play the game of peacetime competition. The name of the game is how to create a region-wide security partnership with India, Australia, southeast Asian nations and Japan. Without limited rights of collective self-defense, the SDF simply can’t work closely with the armed forces of other countries. Japan has been severely limited in its ability to create strong partnerships. This legislation will make it possible for Japan to plug the SDF into stronger region-wide cooperative relationships,” he said.
The legislation has met strong resistance from not only opposition parties, but was greeted by massive protests outside the Diet building on Wednesday, with estimates of the crowds numbering 60,000-100,000 demonstrators. Despite more than 100 hours of debate in the Diet, it is widely recognized here that the legislation is poorly understood and has at very best lukewarm support by the Japanese public, which is worried that the SDF may find itself embroiled in conflicts that have no direct bearing on Japan’s security.
For example, according to a recent poll by the Asahi Shimbun, a popular left-leaning national newspaper, 56 percent of respondents opposed the bills, compared with 26 percent expressing support.
Many of those opposed to the legislation argue that the bills are unconstitutional, as they at least break the spirit of Article 9 of Japan’s 1947 US-drafted “peace” Constitution, in which Japan forever gave up the right to wage war, and which forbids the use of force to settle international disputes. Doubts about the legislation were given an unexpected boost June 4 when a highly respected panel of constitutional scholars unexpectedly testified to the Special Committee on Security Legislation that the bills were, in fact, unconstitutional.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, Thursday questioned if Japan was abandoning its exclusively defense-oriented policy.
“We solemnly urge the Japanese side to ... refrain from jeopardizing China's sovereignty and security interests or crippling regional peace and stability,” she said in a statement.
The LDP argues that since none of the proposed scenarios envisages the SDF actually fighting in combat zones, the legislation does not infringe Article 9.
Michishita questioned the logic of opposing the legislation on moral and constitutional grounds. He argued that Japan has been a strong ally to the US in particular, offering support in a series of conflicts and wars in one way or another since the outbreak of the Korean War and that the legislation should be seen in the context of Japan being able to better support the US.
“It’s a myth to say that Japan has been a pacifist nation. We have always supported the US in its major actions, for example the Gulf War. By international standards, if we regard Japan as a major advanced democracy and economic power, these laws are very limited,” he said.
Secondly, Michishita argued that concerns about Japanese troops fighting other nations’ wars were unfounded. The new leeway given the SDF helps the US balance China by allowing Japan to boost the deterrent effect of the alliance, he said.
“One major conceptual mistake about the legislation is the idea that it is somehow approving the idea that Japan will fight wars. It’s much more about how Japan can bolster its deterrent function to maintain the balance of power in the region against a rising China,” he said.
Finally and fundamentally, Michishita argued that opposing the legislation on constitutional grounds was logically flawed, because a close reading of Article 9 might suggest that the SDF itself is already unconstitutional, a position only maintained by a narrow minority of socialists, communists and pacifists.
“Are people who regard the SDF as unconstitutional being realistic? If you accept the existence of the SDF, this legislation is no big deal. We are not talking about a journey from pacifism to militarism. It’s a journey from ineffective isolationism to internationalism,” Michishita said.
The bills were forwarded to the House of Councillors (Upper House), which has 60 days to pass them. Should the Upper House not do this, the LDP can use its majority to pass the legislation with a two-thirds vote, meaning that the bills are almost certain to become law by the end of the current Diet session on Sept. 27.