By: Matthew Short
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Following approval by the Japanese Diet’s House of Councillors (the upper chamber), the national security bills proposed by the coalition government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cleared their last hurdle to becoming law on September 18, 2015.[i] Their passage concludes a tumultuous summer of parliamentary wrangling, public demonstrations of an unprecedented scale (especially for a population known for its stoicism), numerous public relations/awareness campaign missteps, and a criticized “forceful” approval by House of Representatives (the lower chamber) on July 16, 2015. While it is too early to determine how this political debacle will influence the political survival of the Abe Government, the new national security laws now governing the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) along with the diplomatic, economic, and security policies undertaken by Abe, project an image of Japan, as a state, “returning to normalcy.”[ii] As the United States’ closest ally in Asia, understanding the implications that Japan’s new national security legislation has on the JSDF and on U.S. interests in Asia is critical for Asia-Pacific security policymakers.
Since returning to office at the end of 2012, Abe has vigorously reacted to what he perceives as a decline in Japanese influence vis-à-vis Chinese influence in Asia and the international community. Projecting the image “Japan is back,” Abe envisions a “strong Japan” that demonstrates leadership in the international community and plays an active role in maintaining regional and global peace and stability.[iii] Despite Japan having “significant economic power, influential diplomatic presence, and modern military assets,” Abe has assessed that Japan’s current security environment is growing more dangerous, requiring not only more investment in the JSDF, but also a restructuring of Japan’s security apparatus and a reorientation of its doctrine.[iv]
Restricted by Japan’s U.S. written and imposed “Pacifist Constitution,” in which Japan forsakes the right to declare war (Article 9), Abe has had to balance the necessity of countering what he perceives as rising security threats to Japan with strong domestic public support for maintaining the Pacifist Constitution. Undeterred, Abe accomplished much before introducing the new national security bills this year. He increased the JSDF’s and Coast Guard’s budgets, established Japan’s first National Security Council, and rewrote the National Defense Program Guidelines to refocus the JSDF towards protecting Japan’s southwestern islands and to be a force centered on “readiness, mobility, flexibility, sustainability, and versatility.”[v] Furthermore, he conceived Japan’s first National Security Strategy; calling for the strengthening and expansion of Japan’s capabilities and roles within the regional and global security spheres, a more active role in the Japan-U.S. Alliance, and greater security cooperation with partners in the international community.[vi]
Abe’s efforts to strengthen Japan’s own security capabilities culminated on July 1, 2014 when the Cabinet approved a reinterpretation of Article 9 to “allow for the exercise of the right of collective self-defense,” a stance that the U.S. has long encouraged Japan to adopt.[vii] In essence, the policy reinterpretation enabled Japan to come to the aid of allies if they come under attack, though only “for the purpose of ensuring Japan’s survival and protecting its people…to the minimum extent necessary…[and only] when there is no other appropriate means available.”[viii] However, for the reinterpretation to have real legal standing, changes to Japan’s national security laws were necessary. After months of internal Cabinet debate, the Cabinet gave its approval and submitted to the Diet on May 15, 2015 a package of national security bills that (1) secured the peace and integrity of Japan and (2) legalized the JSDF’s capability to contribute to international peace and stability.[ix] Regarding the legislations’ first objective, the JSDF will now be able to provide logistical support and even military support to foreign forces in situations deemed important to Japan’s security – mainly through the exercising of the right of collective self-defense. The legislations’ second objective is an easing of restrictions concerning usage of arms by JSDF forces on UN peacekeeping operations, and the ability to provide logistical support to allies on collective international security and peace missions when established by a UN resolution or the consensus of an international coalition.[x]
Overall, Abe’s security policies, especially those contained in the new national security bills, have immense implications for U.S. interests in the region; chief among those are the military-logistical benefits these policies have on the U.S.’s efforts (security-wise) to “rebalance” towards the Asia-Pacific. While the U.S. has declared a “rebalance” towards Asia, the demands on the U.S. from other parts of the world, the challenge of fiscal constraints, and the polarization of U.S. politics have all detracted from the U.S.’s ability to remain fully engaged in the region.[xi] Consequently, it is of vital importance to U.S. interests to have a nation in the region that can be relied on to “hold the fort down” when the U.S. is preoccupied elsewhere. Despite a strong tradition of pacifism among the general population, Japan has demonstrated its willingness to be such a nation by implementing, supporting (both financially and tangibly), and promoting a rules based international order rooted in fundamental U.S. values over the past 70 years, especially under the Abe Government. Thus, a “normalized” and “strong Japan” is a nation that the U.S. can trust to play a responsible role in preserving an international order based on liberty, democracy, and the rule of law within Asia.[xii]
This does not eliminate, however, the possibility of downsides for the U.S. if a “normalized” and “strong Japan” were to appear in the region. Theoretically, the stronger the ally, the harder it is to control and restrain them from acting independently or against U.S. interests, one reason why the U.S. has traditionally preferred weaker allies.[xiii] Yet, recent debates within the defense policy community seem to indicate a departure from this theory, as policymakers only feel confident in exploring new partnerships within an alliance when it is strong.[xiv] Most likely, however, there is the chance that, given Japan’s past, other regional powers may perceive the new laws governing the JSDF as a threat, causing tensions to rise and further destabilizing the security of the region. With the exception of China and South Korea (ROK), Abe’s policies towards “normalizing” Japan, including the new national security bills, have been widely welcomed inside and outside the region as China’s assertive behavior has raised tensions.[xv]
Notwithstanding the possibility of negative effects on Japan-U.S.-ROK relations, it is in the U.S.’s interests to continue supporting Abe’s efforts to “normalize Japan,” and fully implement the new JSDF guidelines espoused by the national security bills. Failing to do so could domestically result in a political backlash against the Abe government for “abandoning” Japan’s postwar pacifism, and internationally endanger Japan’s long-term ability to contribute to regional and global stability. While providing U.S. support ensures the creation of a strong ally in Asia who is capable of maintaining the stability of the region, while also upholding the kind of international order and universal values that the U.S. has championed for the past 70 years.
[i] “Japan’s Diet Enacts Security Laws – News – NHK WORLD – English.” NHK WORLD. September 18, 2015. http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/english/news/20150919_05.html
[ii] Onodera, Itsunori. “Strengthening Japan’s Defense Force.” Asia-Pacific Review 20, no. 2 (2014): pg. 70.
[iii] Przystup, James and Tatsumi, Yuki. “The Foreign Policy of Abe Shinzo: Strategic Vision and Policy
Implementation.” The Asian Forum. February 5, 2015. http://www.theasanforum.org/the-foreign-policy-of-abe-shinzo-strategic-vision-and-policy-implementation/.
[iv] Hornung, Jeffrey. “Japan’s Growing Hard Hedge Against China.” Asian Security. vol. 10, no. 2 (2014): pg. 97; Kotani, Tetsuo. “U.S.-Japan Allied Maritime Strategy: Balancing the Rise of Maritime China.” CSIS. pg. 11.
[v]Kotani, Tetsuo. “U.S.-Japan Allied Maritime Strategy: Balancing the Rise of Maritime China.” pg. 9-10;
Onodera, Itsunori. “Strengthening Japan’s Defense Force.” pg. 70-73 and 77-79; Hornung, Jeffrey. “Japan’s Growing Hard Hedge Against China.” pg. 105.
[vi] Kotani, Tetsuo. “U.S.-Japan Allied Maritime Strategy: Balancing the Rise of Maritime China.” pg. 1;
Przystup, James and Tatsumi, Yuki. “The Foreign Policy of Abe Shinzo: Strategic Vision and Policy Implementation.”
[vii] Przystup, James and Tatsumi, Yuki. “The Foreign Policy of Abe Shinzo: Strategic Vision and Policy
Implementation.”; Onodera, Itsunori. “Strengthening Japan’s Defense Force.” pg. 73-74; Armitage, Richard and Nye, Joseph. “The U.S.-Japan Alliance.” CSIS. August 1, 2012. pg. 11-13, 14-15.
[viii] Abe, Shinzo. “Press Conference by Prime Minister Abe.” Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet. July 1, 2014. http://japan.kantei.go.jp/96_abe/statement/201407/0701kaiken.html.
[ix] Fifield, Anna. “Japan’s Cabinet Approves Bills to Loosen Post-war Military Restrictions.” Washington Post, May 1, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/japans-cabinet-approves-bills-to-loosen-post-war military-restrictions/2015/05/14/28a4b9be-fa34-11e4-a47c-e56f4db884ed_story.html; Government of Japan. Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Japan’s Legislation for Peace and Security: Seamless Responses for Peace and Security of Japan and the International Community. May 2015. http://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000080671.pdf.
[x] Government of Japan. Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Japan’s Legislation for Peace and Security: Seamless Responses for Peace and Security of Japan and the International Community. May 2015.
[xi] Kotani, Tetsuo. “U.S.-Japan Allied Maritime Strategy: Balancing the Rise of Maritime China.” pg. 7.
[xii] Onodera, Itsunori. “Strengthening Japan’s Defense Force.” pg. 73.
[xiii] Cha, Victor. “Powerplay: Origins of the US Alliance System in Asia.” International Security. vol. 34, no. 3 (Winter 2009/2010). pp. 158-196.
[xiv] Hornung, Jeffrey. “Japan’s Growing Hard Hedge Against China.” pg. 115.
[xv] Przystup, James and Tatsumi, Yuki. “The Foreign Policy of Abe Shinzo: Strategic Vision and Policy
Implementation.”; Green, Michael, and Hornung, Jeffery. “Ten Myths About Japan’s Collective Self Defense Change.” The Diplomat. July 10, 2014. http://thediplomat.com/2014/07/ten-myths-about-japans-collective-self-defense-change/.