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2014.07.03

Change in collective self-defense must be meaningful

The article was originally posted on The Japan News on June 27, 2014

  • Yuki TATSUMI
  • Senior Research Fellow
    Yuki TATSUMI
  • [Expertise]
    Foreign Affairs and National Security

Discussions on revising the current interpretation of Article 9 of Constitution are intensifying. In May 2014, the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security issued a report arguing that Article 9 of the Constitution does not prohibit Japan from exercising the right of collective self-defense.

Following the panel's recommendation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that his government would pursue the reinterpretation of Article 9 to exercise the right of collective self-defense through a Cabinet decision by the end of the ordinary Diet session. However, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has not been able to persuade New Komeito, its coalition partner, to agree. At the time of this writing, a Cabinet decision on this issue is likely to be delayed at least until early July.

The delay in the government's decision on this issue is discouraging enough. If anything, the ongoing discussion suggests that despite everything that happened since the Gulf War when this issue first surfaced--North Korean missile and nuclear tests; tensions across the Taiwan Strait; the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the rise of China, to name a few--Japan's thinking on the security environment and how Japan should cope with security challenges has changed very little.

Particularly revealing is the debate on how to impose "hadome" (constraints) on Japan's exercise of the right of collective self-defense under the new interpretation. So far, the discussion between the LDP and Komeito projects that, even after Article 9 is reinterpreted through a Cabinet decision, Japan will be allowed to exercise the right of collective self-defense only when the following three conditions are met: (1) when another country that has close relations with Japan faces a military threat that can endanger the Japanese people's way of life in a fundamental manner; (2) no alternative action can be taken; and (3) the use of force by the Self-Defense Force (SDF) will be limited to the minimum necessary.

What is more disheartening is that Japanese politicians, policy elites, media and the public are all missing a critical opportunity to have a larger debate on Japan's national goals and strategic objectives in the world.

Will Japan allow more robust SDF participation in the multinational military operations under U.N. auspices, including peacekeeping operations? Will Japan aspire to engage the SDF more fully in peacetime multinational military activities (i.e., multinational exercises in the Asia-Pacific region) so that Japan will be a proactive actor in efforts to improve the ability of regional military forces to better deal with regional tensions? Is Japan actually interested in encouraging the SDF to become more expeditionary, shouldering greater risk and responsibilities with the United States globally? Or is Japan's goal in relaxing its ability to exercise its right of collective self-defense simply self-serving in the sense that it wants to secure a U.S. defense commitment by pretending to be interested in playing a greater role? If the discussion revolves solely on how to constrain SDF operations, what is the purpose of the national security strategy that the Abe government so proudly rolled out last December?

Most importantly, the current debate reveals the enduring lack of confidence of political leaders in their ability to exercise appropriate civilian control over SDF operations. Under the current decision-making system in Japan, SDF mobilizations can be ordered by the prime minister, but are subject to Diet approval. It takes a gross failure of oversight on the part of Japanese lawmakers for the government to be accused of abusing the "relaxation of the ban of Japan's right to exercise its right of collective self-defense." By touting concerns for such abuse, Japanese politicians are admitting that they are either (1) incapable, or (2) unwilling to exercise legislative oversight on government decisions on matters of national security 70 years after the end of World War II. Either way, they are basically saying that they are not interested in carrying out their responsibilities as elected officials to exercise check-and-balance vis-a-vis the government.

As Japan is bogged down in a decades-old constitutional debate, there are serious discussions regarding the principles of U.S. military intervention, and how to sustain its ability to play a global leadership role in an era of fiscal austerity. The American public's wariness of seeing their country engaging in protracted conflicts remains strong. That is why President Barack Obama set out restrictive conditions on future large-scale U.S. military intervention abroad in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy. While his principles drew criticism, particularly from internationalist Republicans, his speech generally reflects the dominant mood in the United States, as shown by antiwar demonstrations across the United States since the deterioration of the security situation in Iraq. At least for the next decade, U.S. presidents, Democrat or Republican, will bear a much greater burden of articulating why getting involved militarily in crises abroad is necessary in defending U.S. core national interests.

Moreover, the U.S. defense budget is likely to remain flat for the next several years. While the current projection indicates that it will begin to increase again to keep pace with inflation after 2016, it can easily change if the U.S. debt crisis continues. Either way, unless a major catastrophe hits the United States, a huge increase in the U.S. defense budget is unlikely at least for the next decade. Accordingly, there is serious debate within the U.S. defense community on whether Washington should focus on maintaining near-term military supremacy or start investing in the capabilities that allow the United States to prevail in long-term strategic competition and tolerate a certain level of near-term risks.

This debate is driven by a sober awareness that the United States can no longer afford a defense budget that invests in both near-term and long-term capability. In particular, recognizing that the United States will need to stay engaged in the Middle East, there is a greater urgency to search for a renewed division of roles with its allies for greater burden- and risk-sharing when smaller resources will force the United States to make trade-offs between investment in near-term readiness and long-term strategic competition.

Putting it in an Asian context, it means that U.S. allies in the region will have to make a choice between improving their own capabilities to manage near-term, low-end security risks to create room for the United States to invest in high-end capabilities for long-term strategic competition, or relying on Washington to continue to play the role of protector as it does today and accept the risk that the United States may not be as well-equipped to handle security risks in the region over a long run.

In the context of the Japan-U.S. alliance, it means Japan needs to seriously commit to develop the capability and capacity to manage "gray-zone" situations. It also means taking on more responsibilities in rear-area support, which may include shouldering primary responsibility in protecting U.S. bases in Japan, or playing a greater role in evacuating Japanese and U.S. civilians from high-risk areas. In other words, if Japan expects the United States to take risks in defending Japan under Article 5 of the Security Treaty, it must at a minimum demonstrate a willingness to take greater risks alongside the United States in situations that fall under Article 6 of the treaty.

From an alliance perspective, therefore, what truly matters is how the new interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution will allow Japan to take on greater burden-sharing, particularly risk-sharing. If the current debate results in a new interpretation that imposes so much constraint on the circumstances in which Japan can exercise its right of collective self-defense, such an outcome will be almost meaningless.

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