Japan and Collective Self-Defense: Symbolism and Reality

Written by Corey Wallace.

Coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), the Abe Cabinet on July 1 announced that it will open the way for the Japanese government to explicitly exercise elements of its UN Charter Article 51-enshrined right to collective self-defense for the first time since independence. While the Abe administration has argued that any new roles for the SDF will remain firmly within the bounds of Article 9 by tying any exercise of collective self-defence to the condition that Japan’s existence is threatened, the so-called “reinterpretation” is of great symbolic importance for two major reasons.

First, when the Cabinet Legislative Bureau (CLB) and the Japanese parliament thrashed out the details of, and restrictions on, the SDF’s range of valid activities in the mid-1950s, three conditions that had to be met before the SDF could be mobilised to engage in the use of force were established. These conditions were: (1) there is an imminent and illegitimate act of aggression against Japan; (2) there is no appropriate means to repel this aggression other than the use of the right of self-defense; and (3), the use of armed strength is confined to the minimum level necessary for repelling the attack.

However, on July 1 the Japanese government for the first time altered these conditions with a view to eventually enshrining them in legislation. While the third of these requirements will remain the same, and the second will be altered slightly, the first condition will undergo considerable modification to allow Japan to mobilise the SDF in situations that would be considered internationally to constitute the exercise of the right to collective self-defense. In addition to when there is an imminent and illegitimate act of aggression towards Japan, the new first condition will allow the mobilisation of the SDF when a country with which Japan has a close relationship is attacked, on the condition that the attack poses a clear danger to existence of Japan and threatens to overturn the foundation for the enjoyment of the rights of Japanese citizens. In such a case, the Japanese government will be able to use the minimum necessary degree of military capabilities judged to be acceptable under the constitution as a self-defence measure.

The second important symbolic aspect relates to the evolution of Japan’s post-war anti-militarism. After independence in 1952 up until the early 1980s, the restriction on exercising collective self-defence performed what was seen to be an essential function in Japan’s post-war recovery, security policy and grand strategy by essentially building an institutional and normative firewall between US and Japanese military forces. This would perform three functions. First, it would attempt to assure East Asia that Japan, in its alliance with the United States, would not dispatch its SDF forces overseas to reassert regional hegemony and establish a military presence on the continent during a period of US military interventionism in East Asia. Second, it also provided a degree of assurance to the Japanese public that the SDF would not become entrapped in brutal, continental military quagmires reminiscent of its own military adventures in East Asia. Such entrapment could have lead to the loss of Japanese lives, and in the context of Cold War tensions between the US and USSR, could have possibly boomeranged back to Japan in the form of conventional military or even nuclear conflict inside of Japan’s territory. Third, this normative firewall allowed Japanese conservatives in particular, many of whom had doubts about their US allies’ Cold War East Asia strategy, to maintain a certain degree of foreign and security policy-making independence during a period when Japan was committed to pursuing a low profile mercantilist foreign diplomacy.

From the 1980s, however, the extreme degree of sensitivity to collective self-defence and any kind of integration or interaction between Japan and foreign militaries started to dissipate. The Japanese government has increasingly been able to widen the activities of the SDF into areas that might have been previously avoided due to “concern” that such activities might in an ambiguous way constitute collective self-defense. These activities include overseas training with foreign militaries, experimenting with joint command structures, being allowed to protect foreign military and civilian vessels in certain circumstances, providing “rear area” assistance to foreign militaries, increasing hardware interoperability, joint basing, and the protection of foreign citizens and military units under the control of the SDF within UNPKOs. With the first Abe administration (2006-2007), however, the first explicit challenge to the collective self-defence prohibitory norm was seen. While this initial challenge ended in failure, the more politically-adept Abe 2.0 has succeeded in symbolically rolling back the absolute ban on collective self-defence in Japan.

Expectations about a fuller Japanese global military commitment, or conversely, worries about a Japanese military using military power to coerce others, should however be tempered. Even if the Abe administration is able to realise the proposed changes to the fullest extent, substantial red lines will remain in place. For example, non-combat logistical SDF support for foreign militaries will only be permitted in areas where there are no direct hostilities taking place (and the SDF will need to cease its activities if hostilities begin). The Japanese government has been working overtime to assert that whatever the outcome of the new changes, the SDF will not be involved in combat in other nation’s territories such was the case for other US allies during wars in the Middle East over the last twenty-five years.

The practical implications of the cabinet decision for Japan’s security policy orientation and posture are also not yet clear. Important to note is that the cabinet declaration in of itself does not change the legal basis on which the SDF operates. The SDF, much like Germany’s Bundeswehr, is a military that is highly constrained in its activities as it can only operate on the basis of enabling laws passed through parliament. Put simply, if a given activity is not explicitly allowed by law, it is assumed to be prohibited. While the Japanese executive has increased its ability to “use” the SDF on the basis of its own extra-parliamentary prerogatives and judgement over the last twenty-five years, the Abe administration will still need to make changes to more than 10 different laws before even the limited current proposals to exercise collective self-defence can be “legalised”.

When looking at the specific measures that may overlap with collective self-defence that the Abe government has proposed, many of these would strike security analysts as somewhat underwhelming, and some are even based on somewhat unrealistic scenarios such as MSDF vessels defending US military vessels evacuating Japanese citizens from the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, from time to time SDF officers and Ministry of Defence officials have expressed confusion about what the Abe administration is trying to do in practical and concrete terms. While a cautious initial approach is certainly part of a government strategy to ensure that the public is eased into accepting the principle that there may some justification and role for collective self-defence in Japan’s security policy, the immediate change to Japan’s security orientation will not be radical. To be sure, some changes such as minesweeping during an official period of hostilities between other nations and integrating regional Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems could be highly valuable as they relate to the unfolding of any conflict over Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula that cannot be disconnected from Japan’s security. The issue will be, however, the degree to which they are implemented.

The real question for defence analysts inside Japan and overseas will therefore be whether subsequent debate and political bargaining in Japan leads to outcomes that will in some way enhance the deterrence capability of the US-Japan alliance and other regional strategic relationships in substantive terms, and/or enhance the US military’s ability to react to regional contingencies. The US government would likely want to see from the Japanese government increased contributions in the following fields:

  1. C4ISR enhancements and integration not just between Japan and US, but between Japan and regional partners
  2. The enhancement of protection of both fixed and mobile US military assets in the region. This could include increased integration of ballistic missile defence nodes as well as a commitment to the protection of military vessels in regional contingencies (irrespective of whether they are carrying Japanese citizens or not)
  3. Enhancement of cooperation in regards to “counter A2/AD” activities. In other words, in what ways can the Japanese SDF independently or in coordination with the US make it easier or clear the way for the US to intervene in a regional contingency, such as an attack on Taiwan, when an adversary is attempting to raise the costs on the US of intervention.
  4. Greater Japanese role in enhancing the freedom of navigation and the protection of regional sea-lanes of communication (SLOCs). This would include the MSDF being able to conduct minesweeping in a broader range of situations, but would also include Japan working with regional partners of both countries in maritime capability building and defence planning.

The last major symbolic and practical legal expansion of the security roles of Japan’s SDF took place in the late 1990s subsequent to the 1997 Revised US-Japan Defence Guidelines. Important to note is that the debate on the subsequent 1999 Law Ensuring Peace and Security in Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan, however, took close to two years due to controversy and political bargaining. Given that the Abe administration will attempt to push the SDF close to combat areas during ongoing conflict, the post-July 1 expansion of SDF roles will likely be even more controversial.

With the LDP’s Komeito coalition partner likely to remain a significant brake on expanding SDF roles during the post-July 1 legislative process, there is the very real possibility that such changes will only lead to “symbolic” commitments to burden sharing and defence reciprocity in situations that are unlikely to come to fruition. The Komeito leadership has been severely criticised by its own party and its support base in compromising with the LDP on the July 1 cabinet declaration. This could lead to a more circumspect Komeito leadership approaching the legislative process, especially as elections draw near in 2015 and 2016. Furthermore, by making the issue about collective self-defence, opposition to which has been at the core of the Komeito’s identity since the 1960s, this may have harmed the ability of the government to work with Komeito to implement changes that would enhance regional deterrence and reactions to contingencies beyond symbolic commitments. This is notable because many Komeito members, particularly among the younger generation, are actually quite pro-alliance in their orientation, even if they are suspicious of the Abe government’s motivations for pushing the collective self-defence agenda so hard when the LDP-Komeito coalition’s popular mandate appeared to derive from promises to revitalise the Japanese economy.

Arguably, greater collaboration on the above four areas did not in all cases necessarily require the explicit, conscious (and some would say illegitimate) redesign of Japan’s constitutional fabric in order to realise them; rather they could have been achieved through the process of “clarification” of legal ambiguity that has been the hallmark of the CLB’s post-independence influence on Japan’s constitutional interpretation, especially since the early 1980s. The reinterpretation limited the exercise of collective self-defence to situations where there was a threat to Japan’s existence; this begs the question of whether the Japanese government would really have refused to act in such a situation without the reinterpretation. As such, it is as yet unclear whether the legalisation of collective self-defence will make a considerable difference over and above the policies and institutional processes that are already in place for strengthening the US-Japan alliance

Corey Wallace is a Lecturer in the Political Studies Department at the University of Auckland. He teaches courses on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific region and his research specialization is Japan’s evolving security policy.

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