Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been an unabashed advocate for changes in Japan’s defense policy, seeking the goal for his country what he calls “proactive pacifism.” Increased regional tensions, most notably with China, and internal political posturing have fueled the fire for a more outwardly minded Japanese military. A key change is underway with the ‘reinterpretation’ of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution of 1947, which states:
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.
In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
The above renunciation of war has been in effect for over 70 years, and Abe proclaimed that within the framework of Article 9 Japan has the right to collective self-defense, which includes engagement in the defense of an ally. Controversial legislation that is set to pass resulted in a physical scuffle on the floor of the National Diet, Japan’s parliament, but has failed to reverse the inevitable. The new set of bills are expressed in a way that allow for the government justify the use of combat action abroad for the first time since World War II. Abe states that it will give Japan a more “normal” position militarily, while his detractors have voiced fears of being co-opted into American combat intervention overseas. While the Prime Minister and his coalition have the votes on their side, some opinion polls say only 30% of Japanese surveyed support the change and large public protests have dogged the proceedings.
Due to the restrictions of the constitution and Article 9, Japan has for decades relied heavily on its alliance with the US for defense while becoming very accustomed to the American military presence. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) are expressly prohibited from conducting combat missions, and according to recent statistics they amount to one-sixth the size of North Korea’s armed forces and approximately a tenth the size of China’s.
Japan’s defense budget increased in 2013 for the first time in 11 years, and has increased every year since in a reversal of trend that has gained both significant traction and provoked worried criticism. Additionally, beginning in 2013 Abe was instrumental in the successful adoption of a five-year plan to procure new military hardware and capabilities, including drones and amphibious assault vehicles. While still paling in comparison to the defense budgets of China or the United States, the move has drawn ire from the former yet welcome from the latter.
China has openly and harshly criticized Japan’s new laws, with the official Xinhua news agency arguing, “Japan‘s military stance has potentially become more dangerous as its hawkish and historical revisionist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now holds an active war button following the country’s parliament in the early hours of Saturday enacting laws that could usher Japan into war again for the first time in 70 years.” On the other hand, many US and UK officials applauded the move towards more international assistance and a greater Japanese role in global peacekeeping operations.
So far unfettered by a critical China, Abe’s moves away from strict pacifism will test the regional relationship further over time. Japan will likely use the changes as a bargaining chip on the strategic table, especially regarding the South China Sea, Senkaku Islands, and perhaps even North Korea. The US now has a unique opportunity to scale back its forces to let Japan reassert its own military future, but it should also seek to resolve conflict with both Japan and China on the diplomatic table simultaneously.
Ambiguity in the new military laws will be a testing point of contention domestically for Japan, and any foreign military action will almost assuredly come with more protests and demonstrations. Japanese defense policy is set to change in a way that will usher in a new chapter for Japanese relations abroad, and it must navigate carefully if it wishes to achieve new regional and global goals.