top of page

Japan’s Move on Collective Self-Defense Timely and Appropriate


In an extremely controversial and massive shift for the country’s pacifist stance, Japan’s Cabinet took a historic decision on 1 July 2014 “Development of Seamless Security Legislation to Ensure Japan’s Survival and Protect its People”, that will allow the Japanese government to reinterpret the Constitution allowing limited exercise of the right of collective self-defence. The Shinzo Abe government will now be able to coordinate with the United States and other members of the international community to contribute to solidifying Japan’s peace and security. While the constitutional reinterpretation now helps enhance Japan’s deterrent power, in a press conference same day Abe expressed his resolve to “consolidate Japan’s path as a peace-seeking nation”. Abe also pledged to establish “a seamless legal framework on national security to protect the lives and daily livelihood of the people”.

It was not easy for Abe government to reach such a historic decision. His Liberal Democratic Party had policy differences with its coalition partner, the New Komeito, which wanted the government to pursue a cautious approach on permitting Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defence. But protracted efforts on Abe’s part finally led both the parties to find middle ground and reach an agreement. Under the government’s reinterpretation of the Constitution, particularly Article 9, Japan will now be able to use the minimum necessary force when there is an armed attack on a foreign country with which Japan has close relations, and that there is a clear danger that the basic rights of the people of Japan are fundamentally undermined.

Since the end of World War II, Japan backed by its “Peace Constitution”, adhered to a basic policy of maintaining an exclusively national defense-oriented policy, and not become a military power that could pose a threat to other nations. By observing the Three Non-Nuclear Principles,[1] Japan flourished as an economic power and distributed the economic dividends to its people. But now during the 67 years since the Constitution of Japan came into operation, the security environment surrounding Japan has dramatically changed, thereby exposing Japan to deal with significant security challenges. While acknowledging the so-called “UN forces”, an ideal proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, with no prospect of realization, the Cabinet decision took cognizance of the shift in the global power balance after the end of the cold war, rapid progress of technological innovation, development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles as well as threats such as international terrorism leading to tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, thereby impacting directly on Japan’s security. Moreover, the threats to maritime security either stemming from maritime terrorism, piracy or unilateral decision by a single country to impose its views and violating the United Nations Laws of Sea such as in the South China Sea makes the security in the region more volatile.

In a world where economic interdependence is the norm, action by one country severely impacts on others and therefore the interests of all are at stake. Japan being the third largest economic power dependent on overseas trade for its survival could not remain oblivious of this new emerging situation. Even other countries in the region expect Japan to play a more proactive role for peace and stability in the world in a way commensurate with its national capability. The Abe government realised this huge responsibility that Japan has upon itself and the Cabinet decision of 1 July should be read from this perspective.

Even when Japan loosened restrictions on its powerful military, allowing it to go into battle in defense of allies with limited use of force, Abe sought to dissuade critics’ claims that this could see Japan dragged into overseas military conflicts, such as in Afghanistan or Iraq. Abe declared: “There will be no change at all in our principle not to allow the dispatch of forces abroad. There is a misunderstanding that Japan will be involved in war in an effort to defend a foreign country, but this is out of the question.’ [2]

Japan’s Constitution was drafted and ‘imposed’ by the US after the end of the World War II and Article 9 said Japan renounces “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”. Constitutional revision has been an issue in Japan for a long time but tampering with its provisions has not been easy for any previous governments. Also, the public opposition is fiercely against any such move. Though the Abe government originally planned to change Article 9, he also realised that his government with a suspicious coalition partner would not be able to muster the two-thirds majority needed in both the houses and unlikely to get an endorsement from the public in the required referendum (Article 96). Therefore, Abe changed tack, “using what opponents say is sleight of hand to change what the clause means”.[3] The move to reinterpret Article 9 of the Constitution without amending is to achieve his objective of allowing Japanese troops to come to the aid of allies – primarily the US – if they come under attack from a common enemy, even if Japan is not the object of the attack. The move, Abe declared, will be “strictly a defensive measure to defend” Japanese people and that Japan “will not resort to the use of force in order to defend foreign forces”.

What are the implications of this reinterpretation? The interpretation of the Constitution so far has been that Japan “possesses, but cannot exercise” the right of collective self-defence and this has stood ground for a long time. Seen from this perspective, allowing Japan to exercise the right is a major overhaul of the long-established view and implies that Japan’s security issue has emerged as a problem that needs to be addressed afresh.

How did Abe succeed to build consensus with its coalition partner on this reinterpretation issue? Since assuming power in December 2012, making a review of the country’s Constitution was one of Abe’s long term goals. He was fiercely devoted to this cause and had pursued an unyielding position on this. This made it possible for the ruling parties to overcome difficulties and reach an agreement. LDP’s coalition partner, New Komeito, though had serious reservations, took time to build consensus after having talks with its regional organisations before reaching with a reasonable decision. It transpired that New Komeito has emerged as a matured political party, which understands how to function within a coalition government as a responsible junior partner.

Abe’s efforts to lift the self-imposed ban on Japan exercising its collective self-defense right were also supported by opposition lawmakers as well. The idea was endorsed by opposition members from Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), Your Party and some members from the leading opposition Democratic Party of Japan, though its top cadre remained noncommittal and criticized Abe’s initiative in reinterpreting the nation’s fundamental law. [4]

The reinterpretation did not touch on any specific issues. However, the government cited eight example scenarios as cases in which Japan should be able to exercise its collective self-defense rights. Those scenarios include protecting US vessels under armed attack, minesweeping operations and missile defense.

Under the reinterpretation, Japan retains the right to participate in minesweeping operations authorised by a UN resolution under a collective security framework. The Abe government felt if Japan narrows its scope of permissible exercise of the collective self-defense rights, the activities of the Self-Defense Forces would be considerably restrained and the meaning of changing the interpretation of the Constitution would have been rendered meaningless. Therefore the government took up the position that it ought to follow the core principle of the 1972 government view on the right of collective self-defense, which made the current reinterpretation consistent with previous interpretations. Its defense was that the reinterpretation was made “within a reasonable range”.[5] Under this process, no actual amendments to the Constitution were required but were only a matter of the government making necessary adjustments to previous interpretations, which were primarily “self-restrictive due to conditions in the Diet”. [6]

Abe’s strategy to reinterpret is in conformity with the country’s democratic process and when the government asks the Diet for approval of plans to exercise the right of collective self-defense, the bill when passed, will be open to judicial review and thus will be consistent with the Constitution’s principle of separation of powers among the administrative, legislative and judicial branches. Understood from this perspective, the critics charge that reinterpretation is “counter to constitutionalism” is rather weak. This does not deter the left-leaning and liberal voices to argue, however, that the Cabinet decision of 1 July would pave the way for war. Such voices overlook the fact that Japan’s exercise of its right of collective self-defence does not mean that Japan shall resort to use of force to protect any other nation in a situation unrelated to its own defense. Abe categorically gave the example of war-like situation like Iraq where Japan’s possible military involvement would be ruled out.

But what factors led the Abe government to take the Cabinet decision to reinterpret the Constitution? Clearly, the security environment in the region is not the same as it was two decades ago or so. China’s belligerent and assertive behaviour has unnerved other Asian nations. The shadow of history, mutual distrust and suspicions, territorial disputes, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, among others, have dramatically altered the power equations, leading to recasting foreign policy and strategic priorities of Asian countries. In order to cope with the emerging challenges, it was not surprising that Japan too has to be on its guard to protect its security interests. Abe’s move should be seen from this perspective.

The Abe government is not shy to cite China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the region, along with the threat of a nuclear North Korea, as the primary reason for reinterpreting the Constitution to allow the country to use force in defense of its allies and friends. In particular, Tokyo has expressed concern over China’s aggressive sovereignty claims over the Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu Islands in China, which are currently administered by Japan. In May and June 2014, the area surrounding the islands served as the stage for jockeying between the rival countries’ fighter jets, creating the potential for a lethal accident that some feared could escalate into an armed conflict.[7] During this time, the Chinese military jets made abnormally close approaches to Self-Defense Force aircraft in the East China Sea. In an opinion poll undertaken by Mainichi Shimbun in late June 2014, 49 per cent of the respondents felt that possibility of unpredictable conflicts between Japan and China could happen. In a previous opinion survey in May, over 80 per cent of respondents thought China was threatening Japan’s security. [8]

Role of the SDF in the new situation

In a scenario in which the security environment surrounding Japan has considerably deteriorated, and in “situations that are neither pure peacetime nor contingencies are liable to occur, posing risks which could develop into more serious situations”, the Cabinet decision calls for “seamless and sufficient responses …… through closer cooperation between relevant agencies, including police organizations, and the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), premised on the basic allocation of their roles”.[9] The Cabinet decision also made it clear that “for ensuring Japan’s security, it is important for the SDF and the United States armed forces to respond seamlessly in close cooperation to a situation where an attack occurs against the units of the United States armed forces currently engaged in activities which contribute to the defense of Japan and such situations escalates into an armed conflict depending on its circumstances.”[10] What it implied was that the government has now expanded the range of cooperative international peace activities that the SDF will be able to conduct. However, the Cabinet decision limited the ban to “activities in combat zones”. This limit was “intended to avoid Japan from being legally evaluated as carrying out by itself the ‘use of force’ which is not permitted under the Constitution because its support activities would form an ‘integral part’ of the use of force (‘ittaika with the use of force’) by other countries.” [11]

Over the years, under legal frameworks the SDF has steadily accumulated its record of various support activities. In view of the changing security environment in Japan’s neighbourhood, Abe realised that Japan ought to respond to the expectations and trust in Japan that have grown. Therefore, it was expected that based on the principle of international cooperation and from the perspective of “proactive Contribution to Peace”, the SDF assumes sufficient roles in wide-ranging support activities for peace and stability of the international community.

So far Japan has developed the necessary legislation and conducted international peace cooperation activities for the past two decades. However, Japan “limited the right of SDF personnel to use weapons when engaging in international peace cooperation activities to so-called self-preservation type and protection of its own weapons and other equipment since use of weapons associated with so-called ‘kaketsuke-keigo’ (coming to the aid of geographically distant unit or personnel under attack) or ‘use of weapons for the purpose of execution of missions’ could constitute the ‘use of force’ prohibited by Article 9 of the Constitution, if such use of weapons are directed against ‘a state or a quasi-state organisation”. [12]

Thus the decision now makes it possible for the SDF to conduct armed rescue operations during their involvement in UN peacekeeping missions and other overseas missions. Under the Cabinet decision, if civilians or foreign troops face an armed attack in areas distant from but accessible to SDF members engaged in such overseas task, such personnel have now the right to go to their rescue. The Cabinet decision entitles them to the use of weapons in their execution of such duties. The Abe government hopes that these changes will enable the SDF to better accomplish international missions such as supply, transport and medical support activities along with UN peacekeeping operations.

Japan has legitimate concern that some of its islands are under threats from foreign powers. Some of the islands have huge strategic importance for Japan. The Cabinet decision, therefore, addressed to gray-zone situations, including a potential scenario in which foreign armed groups take control of remote Japanese islands and therefore mandated enhanced role for the SDF. Now the SDF maritime forces will enjoy freedom to engage in maritime patrol and operations and other activities aimed at addressing such situations when those arise.

The Abe government now ought to begin implementing legislative measures such as amendments to the Self-Defense Forces Law and the Armed Attack Situation Response Law, thereby complement the Cabinet decision, and ensure that the SDF responds flexibly to a variety of situations.

Since the establishment of the SDF in July 1954, the Japanese government has expanded the role of the SDF to reflect international developments and the changing times. It was a quirk of history that though the US bombed two cities of Japan – Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, thereby ensuring Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II, it was the US that was instrumental in creating the SDF following the outbreak of the Korean War. From that time onwards, Japan’s national security strategy has evolved gradually giving greater roles and responsibilities to the SDF to make it effective and responsible. The latest in this long evolution is the Cabinet decision approving a reinterpretation of the Constitution to allow limited exercise of the right of collective self-defence.

At that time, political parties, including the now-defunct Japan Socialist Party and the Japanese Communist Party argued that the creation of the SDF was a move that went against the Constitution. However, successive governments continued to maintain that “the right of self-defence is an inalienable right of a nation” and maintained its “consistent stance that the minimum power necessary to defend the nation does not fall under use of military force, which is prohibited by the Constitution”. [13]

Over the years, the SDF has been playing more active roles. During the first Gulf War in 1991, the US urged upon Japan to make contribution to the Gulf War Fund. After initial refusal, Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki had to pay $13 billion, which worked out at that time at an average of 10,000 Yen per Japanese person. Yet, Japan was criticised for its so-called “checkbook diplomacy”, leading to questions about international contributions using personnel. Later, Japan was forced to dispatch MSDF minesweepers to the Persian Gulf in 1992, the first overseas deployment of Japanese defense personnel since the end of World War II. Japan also passed the UN Peacekeeping Activities Cooperation Law the same year.

During deliberations on the above law, a range of issues were raised including the relationships between “use of force” prohibited under Article 9 of the Constitution and “use of weapons” by SDF members and preconditions for participation in international peace cooperation activities. The government’s position was that SDF members engaged in such peacekeeping missions are allowed to protect their lives as measures of self-defense and emergency evacuation. Weapon usage that was kept to a minimum did not fall under the “use of force”, thereby not counting as a violation of the Constitution. The government provided five principles for SDF’s participation in UN peacekeeping activities. These were:

—A ceasefire agreement must be in place between relevant parties in a conflict. —Relevant parties in a conflict have given consent to the deployment of SDF units. —Neutrality must be maintained by personnel. —Units must withdraw if any of these conditions are no longer met. —Personnel are allowed to use only minimum weapons necessary.

These principles were stricter than conditions set by other nations at that time.

The subsequent development of nuclear weapons by North Korea heightened the threat perception of Japan and started reshaping Japan’s security strategy. The security establishment in Japan started to prioritise how Japan would react to emergencies when North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile into the sea off Japan’s Sanriku region in 1998. This led Japan to introduce a missile defense system and information communication satellites.

In 1999, Japan enacted a law that governed SDF operations to assist US military forces in an emergency in areas surrounding Japan. The law also mandated that the SDF could collaborate with US forces in case of emergency. The emergency measures meant SDF’s missions were limited only to “rear areas” where there were no combat. The SDF’s activities were also limited to transportation and supply for US forces. Refuelling and maintaining of US fighters engaged in combat missions were excluded.[14] After the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001 and the subsequent fighting “war on terror”, Japanese government established a special measures law on terrorism to assist US forces. In 2003, Japan sent the Ground SDF forces to Iraq to assist in the country’s post-war reconstruction. The SDF’s activities were, however, limited to non-combat areas to avoid any use of force.

Reactions from Neighbours

The move drew sharp criticism from neighbouring China and South Korea. Both the countries regularly accuse Japan of failing to atone for its aggressive wartime actions. The new policy angered more an assertive China, whose ties with Japan have frayed due to a maritime row, mistrust and legacy of Japan’s past military aggression. China said that Japan should respect the concerns of regional countries as the most dramatic shift in policy will widen Japan’s military options by ending the ban on exercising “collective self-defense”, or aiding a friendly country under attack.[15] So far, the ban kept Japan’s military from fighting abroad since World War II.

China levelled harsh criticism against Japan’s easing of constitutional constraints that would expand the country’s military role and allow overseas deployment. Chinese media denounced Tokyo’s move to loosen the bonds on its military and said this posed a threat to Asian security and makes the world more concerned.[16] The People’s Daily in its editorial questioned why Abe wants Japan to become a “normal” country and charged that he ignores why Japan and its military have been deprived of this “normalcy”. The editorial observed: “The recalcitrant attempts by Japanese politicians, including Abe, to rewrite history and their country’s unseemly record in World War II are reminders that Japan doesn’t deserve being treated as a normal country.” [17] From Beijing’s perspective, the “Cabinet resolution has opened Pandora’s box for Japan, East Asia, and the world at large”.[18]

The Global Times, another mouthpiece of Chinese Communist Party, termed Japan’s defense shift setting free Tokyo’s militarism. It accused Japan and the US of seeking to see more disturbances in Asia, saying “the US hopes it will hinder China’s rise” while “Japan wants to seek opportunities to realize its rise both politically and militarily.”[19] The editorial also lambasted the US, accusing that its aim is to contain China by making use of Japan and this provides room for Abe’s strategic ambition. As a result, it observes, Japan’s aggression, previously restrained, has gradually awakened. But striking a conciliatory note, the editorial observes: “China should avoid a worse situation when it has to make strategic compromises with Japan in spite of Japan’s wrongdoings.”

Hong Lei, a Foreign Ministry spokesman told the press on 1 July that Beijing would oppose that Japan is using the “China threat theory” to promote its political agenda and that Japan should not undermine China’s sovereignty and security interests, as well as regional peace and stability.[20] China sees that Japan’s moves would widen its military options, especially in the backdrop of Tokyo’s close ally US’ push into the Asia-Pacific. Hong told for historical reasons, Japanese policy moves in military and security fields are closely watched by its Asian neighbours and the international community and that Japan should respect Asian neighbours’ security concerns.

In a long posting in the Global Times, Deng Yushan of the Xinhua News Agency termed Abe’s move as Faustian attempt to eviscerate pacifist constitution risks Japan’s soul. He observed: “Abe is dallying with the spectre of war through a cheap scam but at the deal cost of not only his own soul but also those of the entire Japanese nation. For with the limits on the use of force for collective self-defense vaguely defined, Japan might be thrown into undeserved by some hot-headed or near-sighted politicians at the top wars.”[21] Similarly, military expert Yin Zhuo bemoaned that by choosing to adopt a right to collective self-defense, Abe is ending the post-War period of peace and leading the Japanese people to an uncertain future. Other critics from China saw Abe’s path as “Nazi tactics” that underlines seven-decade-old post-war international order, which was based on a series of international treaties and declarations, including the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Proclamation. Liu Jiangyong, vice director of the Modern International University Institute at Tsinghua University observed Abe has already trampled the country’s Constitution. He feared that this move by Japan will severely undermine Sino-Japanese relations. [22]

South Korea, like Japan allied with the US, but still aggrieved about Tokyo’s 20th-century colonization of the Korean Peninsula, also raised objections. In a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry, it urged Japan to be “transparent in its efforts and should not undermine regional peace and stability” in formalising an end to the ban on the use of its military abroad.[23] However, compared to the strong reactions from Beijing, reactions of Seoul were rather mild. Seoul urged Japan to maintain the spirit of its pacifist Constitution despite reinterpreting the text.

The South Korean government did not openly express opposition to Japan’s changes, partly because they are supported by the US, though it is concerned about potentially negative public reaction. It said Japan must take action to “renounce historical revisionism and . . . dispel doubts and concerns stemming from historical issues, and to win the trust from its neighboring countries.” [24] It mildly warned that it would not tolerate Tokyo using troops in any way that affects the security of the Korean Peninsula — unless South Korea has requested or consented to it. According to some critics, by taking the decision in the Cabinet Abe has placed the country on a slippery slope towards allowing its military to participate in full combat operations.

Reactions inside Japan

The Japanese society was clearly divided on this issue. In Japan the author had occasion to speak to many Japanese people, young and old, and obtained their perspectives on this. Generally, the elder generation of Japanese disapprove of Abe’s stance. They fear that precious lives will be put to risk if Japan engages in combat. The younger generation remains oblivious of what the leaders are doing; they have little interest in politics of the country. Those who oppose the move are in hundreds or in thousands and are unlikely to have major role in impacting the country’s political direction. The stray opinion polls which show the approval and disapproval rating of political leaders play little role in determining the fortune of either the leaders or the political parties. Only the opposition makes use of the opinion poll results if a dip in the rating of leader in office works to their advantage.

However, thousands of people joined a protest outside Abe’s office in Tokyo, arguing that any change to the constitution should be made through a public referendum, not simply a cabinet reinterpretation. The protestors shouted “do not destroy the pacifist Constitution” and “Step down, Abe,” holding banners that read “Tokyo against Fascism,” “Article 9 rules. Speak up. Now or Never. Be true to the Article 9” and “absolutely oppose cabinet resolution.”

An opinion survey conducted through June 27 and 29 by the Nikkei business daily showed that 54 percent of the respondents were against lifting the ban compared to 29 percent who backed the change. Similarly, in a nationwide telephone survey made by Kyodo News Agency on June 21 and 22, it was found that only 34.5 percent supported the controversial move, while 57.7 per cent of respondents were against Abe’s move to lift the ban on collective self-defence by interpreting the Constitution instead of amending it.

According to the survey by Mainichi Shimbun, among the opposition, 71 per cent said the collective defense rights will drag Japan into war. Only 19 percent said that they didn’t think this would happen.[25] Among those who supported the government’s move to lift a self-imposed ban on the right to collective self-defense, 60 percent said that they thought Japan could become involved in a war, while an overwhelming 83 percent of those who opposed feared Japan could get dragged into wars. While some 60 percent of ruling Liberal Democratic Party supporters thought that Japan could become embroiled in wars if the right to collective self-defense was exercised, the figure jumped to 70 percent among supporters of LDP coalition member New Komeito. Eighty-six percent of those who opposed the government’s plan did not believe that exercising such a right could prevent Japan from becoming involved in armed conflict.[26] The poll also said that support rate for Abe’s Cabinet fell to 45 percent, the lowest since Abe took office in December 2012. In an editorial, Mainichi Japan opposed Abe move.[27] It observed: “A dramatic policy change like the upcoming one should not be decided by the Cabinet of the day alone. The Abe government should rather propose to the public that Article 9 be revised. ….. Such reinterpretation is impermissible and we oppose the move.” [28]

Another poll by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun in late June 2014 also found that 50 percent of the 1,029 respondents expressed opposition to the change in interpretation, and only 34 percent supported it. However, the approval rate for Abe’s Cabinet remained unchanged from that of the previous month at 53 percent — still impressive compared with other recent Cabinets — while the disapproval rate increased by 4 points to 36 percent. [29]

A man in his 50s made a speech opposing Abe’s moves and then burned himself at the crowded Shinjuku train station in Japan’s capital Tokyo on 30 June in protest. Referring to the war-renouncing clause in the pacifist Constitution, one of the placards raised by the demonstrators read “The Constitution is ours. Do not destroy Article 90 without our permission. Another read “Stop reinterpreting the Constitution.”[30] Philip McNeil, political commentator and Shizuoka-based author observed that the people were witnessing the reality that Abe was potentially steering the nation down a very dangerous road, a road that Japan turned its back decades ago, favouring peace and pacifism.

Impact on Japan-US alliance

The US welcomed Japanese government’s new policy regarding collective self-defense. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said it will enable Japan’s SDF to engage in a wider range of operations and make the Japan-US alliance even more effective. In a statement issued on 1 July, Hagel observed: “This decision is an important step for Japan as it seeks to make a greater contribution to regional and global peace and security. The new policy also complements our ongoing efforts to modernize our alliance through the revision of our bilateral guidelines for defense cooperation.”[31] Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera flew to Washington to brief his counterpart personally about Japan’s latest move.

Besides China’s assertive posture that could have driven Abe’s move, there are also reports which suggest that Abe was not confident to solely rely on the US on the strength of Japan’s alliance relationship as the US was putting too many eggs in its basket with global commitments and that Japan would have to deal with its own security threats alone when such situations arise. Though Abe could not resist announcing that from now on the Japan-US alliance will enter into a different sphere, this remark does not overlook his earlier complaints that the administration of President Barack Obama was too soft on China. While, remaining in an alliance relationship, Japan had no alternative but to deepen it further through joint military exercises and unification of operation plans to handle emergencies because of China’s repeated provocative and aggressive actions around Japan’s territory. Yet, Abe seems to have been convinced that the US position as the “world policeman” had already eroded. [32]

He is reported to have remarked while arguing to change interpretation of the Constitution “if someone cannot help his or her friend, they are not friends”. Abe was obviously implying that when the alliance relationship based on trust is undermined, the alliance itself becomes a worthless piece of paper. In fact, when Abe raised the issue with the US National Security Advisor Susan Rice who was accompanying Obama during his visit to Japan in April 2014 that under the given situation, Japan will not be in a position to protect US vessels carrying civilians escaping some disaster, Susan encouraged Abe to take measures to reinterpret the Constitution that will empower Japan’s SDF to act. Abe thus had the US endorsement to initiate the process of constitutional reinterpretation concerning the right of the right of collective self-defence.

This is one part of the story. The other part was that Abe had developed reservation on the US ability or willingness to come to its rescue in times of need as he perceived that the US policy has become too inward looking. Though under his “rebalance” policy, Obama placed greater military and diplomatic emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region by committing to expand the share of its naval assets in the Pacific to 60 per cent of the global fleet by 2020 and distribute operational units of the Marines Corps to Okinawa, Guam and other places, Abe perceived that the US’ global power was on the decline. Further, Obama’s handling of the issue of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and failure to launch air strikes on Syria despite making such a decision following confirmation of chemical weapons use further strengthened Abe’s perception of the US that its power was on the wane. Also, when Obama declined to draw a ‘red line’ on a possible military action during his April visit to Japan committing the US to intervene to rescue the Senkaku Islands should a situation arises even after confirming that this territory was covered under Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty, Abe’s reservation on the US willingness/ability deepened. Abe is reported to have reacted to Obama’s observation “there’s no ‘red line’ that’s been drawn” by saying that the remarks sounded like “he was tiptoeing around China”.[33] Hereafter, Japan shall be able to exercise its right of collective self-defense, while conducting joint operations with the US to handle possible emergencies that will ensure US involvement in the defense of Japan. As a result the Japan-US Defense Cooperation Guidelines are expected to be revised by the end of 2014 and the MSDF’s involvement in the operations of the US Seventh Fleet based in Yokosuka (Kanagawa Prefecture) will also reassure Japan of its security.

In fact on the eve of the landmark policy shift, Japan’s Ground SDF personnel, armed with mock rifles, were training alongside US Marines to retake an “invaded” island in an amphibious landing exercise. The joint drill was carried out offshore from a US Marine Corps base on eastern Oahu Island on 30 June, in which about 30 fully equipped GSDF personnel boarded a US CH-53 transport helicopter.[34] It was a part of the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, a biennial international maritime exercise commonly known as RIMPAC. In the landing exercise, the GSDF troops took part for the first time. Though troops from Australia, Canada, South Korea and other nations also participated totalling about 800 Marines, the GSDF collaborated only with the US forces to limit the drill to what was within Japan’s right to individual self-defence. With the Cabinet decision of 1 July, such restrictions will no longer apply to the next exercise. If Japan conducts its drills next time in cooperation with Australia, South Korea and India, besides the US, Japan would have sent a clear political message to China that other nations are not sitting idle to watch its incessant advance. It would be appropriate for Abe to raise this issue with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visits Japan soon so that India-Japan ties assume stronger spine in the interest of regional peace and stability. Both can be important partners in coping with this enormous challenge. Japan can now exercise its right to collective self-defence, allowing it to come to the aid of an ally under attack.

Barring strong protest from China and mild opposition from South Korea, Abe’s move has been endorsed by many other countries, besides the US. Japan received support from Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam and others for strengthening its regional security role. Australia hailed Japan’s move as “more normal defense posture”. Earlier when Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera met his Australian counterpart David Johnston in early June, the latter had remarked that “the remaking and strengthening of relations is part of a wider regional pattern as countries warily eye China’s growing assertiveness, including in rows that have flared badly with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan”. Australia wants “territorial disputes should be resolved across the table and pursuant to the international law”. [35]


The region would generally welcome Japan assuming a greater security role. Both the Philippines and Vietnam are open to maritime cooperation with Japan amid Chinese assertiveness over territorial sovereignty claims. India and Australia have each signed joint security declarations with Japan, and a decision to exercise collective self-defense would surely bolster bilateral security ties and facilitate multilateral coordination with the US and other like-minded partners. The latest move would facilitate Japan to establish close ties with Southeast Asian nations. Japan becoming a full-fledged member of the security partnership for the entire region would be welcome. The Cabinet decision clarifies the legal grounds for allowing Japan the exercise of the right of collective self-defense under the Constitution and a direction for the development of legislation in the future. It further mandates that three conditions have to be met before exercising this right. They are:

(1) An armed attack takes place against a foreign country with which Japan has close relations and the country’s existence is threatened and there is a “clear danger” that the people’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will be fundamentally undermined. 2. There are no other appropriate measures to ensure the country’s existence and protect the people. 3. The use of force is kept to the minimum necessary.

Under the interpretation of the Constitution by past administrations, the country has the right of collective self-defense but cannot exercise it.

According to the Cabinet’s view, collective self-defense is a right granted to member nations by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which allows them to aid allies under military attack. But previous governments have maintained that Article 9 prohibits Japan from exercising that right because it exceeds the “minimum necessary” use of force for self-defense mandated by the war-renouncing Constitution. Abe however maintained that Japan can use “minimum necessary” force in collective self-defense if “there is a clear existential threat to Japan”, and the life, liberty and happiness are affected.

Though the ambiguous wording fanned fears in China and South Korea that the government might greatly expand the scope of overseas Japanese military operations to support an ally — most likely the US — even if Japan itself was not under attack, the change in Japan’s security policy is appropriate that was mandated in response to the developments in the neighbourhood. For example, being a maritime nation, Japan has huge responsibility to join other nations to secure the sea lanes of communications from threats to supplies of oil, gas or food to Japan. This change in policy also expands scope for deepening naval cooperation between India and Japan. From now onwards, Japan can exercise the right of collective self-defense in joining a battle with other friendly countries if maritime trade comes under threat. Many Asian countries, including Japan, import oil from the Middle East and the cargo vessels sail thousands of kilometers via many potential military flashpoints, including the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. Being export-oriented economies, many Asian countries also depend on sea transport for export of finished products to overseas destinations. Any disruption to this either due to piracy, maritime terrorism or unilateral action by any single country could severely negatively affect the economies of the region or impact world trade.

Though no single scenario can be drawn at the moment in which Japan can use the right of collective self-defense, there could be many. However, Japan commits the use of force to the minimum necessary. The reinterpretation of the Constitution would now allow Japan to form close security alliances with India, Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations to contain China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and protect the global commons.

Even the LDP’s coalition partner New Komeito concurred with the government’s view when Kazuo Kitagawa, the party’s Vice President observed that “collective self-defense under international law means defending other countries without considering if that would infringe on one’s own security, but we see this as part of the self-defense of Japan.” On his part, Abe has given assurances that Japan will not join military operations by coalition forces authorized by the UN, such as the Gulf War. Though this runs counter to the recommendation of his handpicked panel, which recommended in its defense report in May that Japan should take part in such operations, the possibility of the government giving a free hand to expand the involvement of the SDF in combat abroad remains in the realm of speculation at the moment.

Following the Cabinet decision, the government now has to obtain an understanding from the public through Diet deliberations and prepare the related bills. The government has already set up a team inside the National Security Secretariat, the administrative office of the National Security Council to draft legislation related to the exercise of Japan’s right of collective self-defence within a limited range. In the light of the newly emerging security environment in the Asian region, Abe’s move is timely and appropriate and should be welcome by all concerned that will help maintain equilibrium and order in Asia. Japan’s move opens scope for Prime Minister to exchange views with his counterpart on this when he travels to Tokyo for the annual summit meeting soon.

(The writer Dr. Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, New Delhi, is currently The Japan Foundation Fellow at Reitaku University, Chiba, JAPAN. E-mail: )

—— [1] For a detailed discussion on this issue, see Rajaram Panda, “Japan moves a step closer to become a ‘normal’ state – Analysis”, 25 April 2014, [2] “Japan invokes right to ‘collective self -defence’”, 1 July 2014, vor01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e1152%2eon0ao069c5%2e1211 [3] Ibid. [4] “Constitutional reinterpretation enhances Japan’s deterrent power”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, 2 July 2014, [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] “China questions Japan’s decision to loosen military constraint”, Mainichi Japan, 2 July 2014, [8] “71 per cent fear Japan could be dragged into wars if collective self-defense exercised”, Mainichi Japan, 30 June 2014, /news/20140630p2a00m0na008000c.html [9] Cabinet Decision on “Development of Seamless Security Legislation to Ensure Japan’s Survival and Protect its People”, July 1, 2014, /428006.html [10] Ibid. [11] Ibid. [12] Ibid. [13] “Shifting realities changed perception of defense”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, 3 July 2014, [14] Ibid. [15] “China, S. Korea insist Japan respect concerns over its military”, 1 July 2014, [16] “China media slam Japan military role expansion”, 2 July 2014, presstv01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e1153%2eon0ao069c5%2e1228 [17] “Japan opens Pandora Box”, The People’s Daily, editorial, 2 July 2014, [18] Ibid [19] “Defense shift sets free Tokyo’s militarism”, Global Times, editorial, 2 July 2014, [20] Quoted in Ibid. [21] Deng Yushan, “Abe’s Faustian attempt to eviscerate pacifist constitution risks Japan’s soul”, The Global Times, 2 July 2014, /868542.shtml [22] “Japan to loosen restrictions on military”, The Global Times, 1 July 2014, [23] “S. Korea, China urge Japan to maintain spirit of pacifist Constitution”, The Japan Times, 2 July 2014, diplomacy/s-korea-china-urge-japan-to-maintain-spirit-of-pacifist-constitution/#.U7OHJiDrZjo [24] Ibid. [25] “71 per cent fear Japan could be dragged into wars if collective self-defense exercised”, n.8. [26] Ibid. [27] “Mainichi opposes reinterpretation of Constitution for collective self-defense”, Mainichi Japan, editorial, 1 July 2014, /news/20140701p2a00m0na013000c.html [28] Ibid. [29] Reiji Yoshida and Ayako Mie, “Critics: What defines the condition for military force?”, The Japan Times, 1 July 2014, /national/politics-diplomacy/critics-restraints-overly-ambiguous/#.U7OGtyDrZjo [30] “Citizens protest against destroying Article 9 of constitution”, Mainichi Japan, 30 June 2014, /news/20140630p2a00m0na003000c.html [31] Hagel welcomes Japan’s New Collective Self-Defense Policy”, Defense Media Activity, [32] Japan-U.S. pact to enter new stage”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 02, 2014, [33] Ibid. [34] Yusuke Fukui, “GSDF joins U.S. Marines for first time in RIMPAC joint amphibious landing drill”, The Asahi Shimbun, 1 July 2014, /politics/AJ201407010040 [35] “Australia backs Japan’s collective defense shift”, 13 June 2014,

1 view0 comments