On July 1, 2014, the Japanese Cabinet finally passed a new reinterpretation of Article 9 of the country’s constitution. It will now allow Japan to protect their allies from armed aggression as part of the collective self-defence principle. This thus opens the opportunity for Japan to use its Self-Defense Force when the subjects of armed aggression are not the citizens or property of Japan, but of the USA.
The two countries are currently allies and a UN Charter prescribes the right for an ally to defend their ally from aggression by a third party. However, Japan could not make use of this right due to its constitutional restrictions. This is why the bilateral alliance had until now carried a one-sided character, that is, the US were forced to defend Japan whereas the latter could not do the same for its key ally. Yet this is still the “fault” of the US themselves.
It should be mentioned that the presently in effect Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution, which was practically dictated by attorneys from General Douglas MacArthur’s occupational forces headquarters, prohibits Japan from having its own military force. To maintain order within the country, the same occupational administration allowed for only a limited police force contingent, which was renamed to “Security Corps” in 1952.
With the escalation of the Cold War, the US increasingly began to view Japan as a potential military ally. However, the powerful anti-war vaccine that Japanese society received during the war in the Pacific theatre (still largely present to this day) did not allow for the constitution’s “anti-war” article to simply be voided. This is why, when a decision was made to form three full-fledged branches of armed forces in the summer of 1954, their name of Self-Defense Force reflected the constitutional limitations on using such forces only to defend Japanese territory.
However, the limitations placed on the scale and the functions of the SDF fully corresponded with the so-called Yoshida Doctrine (named after the country’s first post-war prime minister), according to which Japan should focus its efforts on rebuilding and modernising its post-war economy. Japan was able to extract the most benefits out of its humiliating post-war constitution, virtually avoiding participation in the extremely costly military affairs of its key ally all the while stating something akin to “well you wrote it for us yourself”.
The breakthrough in the matter came in the form of the Gulf War of 1990-1991, which was mounted against Iraq by the “coalition forces” headed by the US. Japan’s involvement in the war was limited to paying some of the expenses accrued by the coalition. This caused unabashed anger in Washington (“we are at war, while your involvement ends at you pulling out your cheque book… allies…”). Tokyo, in turn, stated that this attitude towards their contribution to the war “causes certain disappointment in the Japanese nation.”
From this moment on, there were increasingly more public discussions in Japan on whether to completely reject Article 9 or whether to reinterpret it in such a way as to strip its anti-war contents. Meanwhile, the motives for this type of probe began to get further and further away from being about Japan’s relations with its key ally.
By this time, the Yoshida Doctrine had virtually run its course, but it was certainly the reason Japan had turned into the world’s second greatest economy and was widely respected. Her previous “sins” were slowly forgotten and Article 9, which had no other equals in global practice, began to look increasingly more archaic.
Yet the most important aspect of this issue is that on the cusp between the 1990s and the 2000s, it was increasingly more apparent that China was rising as a global superpower, which Japan interpreted as a threat to their national interests and security. This was the reason for once again re-examining the issue of rejecting the limitations on their own military build-up and the limitations on how to use the SDF.
However, the procedure for amending the existing Japanese constitution is extremely complex. It necessitates obtaining the approval of a qualified majority in the parliament and then a subsequent qualified majority on a national referendum. Although the issue of rejecting Article 9 has not been shelved, it is presently technically easier to instead pass a new interpretation of the constitution on the government level, which would allow the country to dramatically expand the uses of the SDF while at the same time avoiding the complicated constitutional amendment procedure.
This became one of the central platforms of the Liberal Democratic Party that won the early parliamentary elections of 2012 and its leader Shinzo Abe, who became Prime Minister for the second time.
The Cabinet’s decision of July 1 states that “the Government has reached a conclusion that not only when an armed attack against Japan occurs but also when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, and when there is no other appropriate means available to repel the attack and ensure Japan’s survival and protect its people, use of force to the minimum extent necessary should be interpreted to be permitted under the Constitution as measures for self-defence in accordance with the basic logic of the Government’s view to date.”
The latter part of the phrase reflects the wishes of the party’s smaller partner within the parliamentary coalition, the New Komeito party. Together, the parties spent long and arduous hours trying to come to an agreement on the final edition of the government’s decision.
The attempts of LDP’s political partner to uphold a cautious position on the present issue are easily explained: this step taken by the Shinzo Abe government is, to put it mildly, not widely supported in Japanese society. According to various polls, more than half of the Japanese people are against these changes. A certain former SDF soldier may, for example, ask himself the following question, “I could understand the necessity of protecting Japanese trading vessels, but are military operations to protect American vessels in the [Persian] Gulf region really an act of self-defence?”
In responding to those critiquing the government’s decision at home, Shinzo Abe claims that it is in line with Japan’s goal to “play a more proactive role in ensuring peace and stability in the region while strengthening the potential of the Self-Defence Forces before the growing threat to peace in the Asia Pacific region. Peace is not a present to us from someone else. There is no other choice but to ensure it ourselves.”
A fairly expected reaction to the announcement came in the form of China’s cautious attitude, as the country has labelled the decision a “key moment” in moving Japanese defence policy towards “militarism”.
Yet when viewed initially, the most surprising may seem the cautious reaction from Washington towards the decision announced in Tokyo. This is due to the fact that back in 2000, the Armitage-Nye report stated that “if Japan were to eliminate their limitations in terms of collective self-defence, this would greatly increase the effectiveness of bilateral cooperation in the sphere of defence”.
However, with the beginning of President Barack Obama’s second term, there have been increasingly more noticeable shifts in Washington’s stance on the entire complex relationship triangle between the US, China and Japan. Washington began to show caution due to the prospects of being involved in serious conflicts because of matters of little significance. This could come in the form of the argument that is on the verge of spilling over into something greater between Japan and Chine about who owns five uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
The complications in the relations within this triangle are particularly reflected in RIMPAC, the world’s largest international naval exercises currently being held in the Pacific Ocean. However, the noteworthy aspects of these exercises deserve a separate in-depth examination.
Vladimir Terekhov, leading research fellow at the Centre for Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the Russian Institute of Strategic Research, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.