Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Japan’s Constitutional Reinterpretation and Its Pursuit of New Security Relationships

Japan’s Constitutional Reinterpretation and Its Pursuit of New Security Relationships

On July 1, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced that his cabinet approved a resolution to reinterpret Article Nine of Japan’s 67-year old constitution.  That article, which stipulates that Japan would forever renounce war as a sovereign right, effectively forbids its military from coming to the aid of allies under attack or, in other words, engaging in what it calls “collective self-defense.”  The new cabinet resolution would remove that restriction.  It would also relax the limits on Japan’s activities in United Nations peacekeeping operations and incidents short of war.  While most outsiders may view the reinterpretation as modest, many Chinese and some South Koreans worry that the change will lead to a more aggressive Japan.  Japanese citizens also worry, but for a different reason.  They worry that Japan could be more easily drawn into conflicts at the behest of its allies, especially the United States.

Abe has had to work hard to get this far.  He had to win over his governing coalition partner, the New Komeito Party.  (New Komeito’s consent may still earn the party a backlash from its pacifist supporters.)  Even now, Abe still faces a full debate in Japan’s Diet before he can make amendments to existing laws that will be needed to implement his cabinet’s decision.  That is Abe’s next hurdle.

But it is a hurdle that Japan will have to overcome, if it wants to not only strengthen its existing security relationship with the United States, but also build new ones with other countries.  Without the ability to take part in collective self-defense, Japan can offer its security partners little more than moral support.  Typically allies expect more than that.  Since Japan, as Abe is keen to stress, sits an in increasingly volatile region, it needs new allies.  To secure them, it is useful for Japan to be able to engage in collective self-defense, which is one of the main reasons why Abe has pushed to have Article Nine reinterpreted.

Not surprisingly, the reinterpretation pleased Japan’s ally, the United States, which has long borne the brunt of the defense burden in their security relationship.  As one senior American official put it, Japan’s constitutional reinterpretation merely “[gets] Japan up to a normal baseline of operations in collective self-defense.”[1]  Under its new guidelines, Japan’s military would have permission to shoot down a North Korean missile heading for the United States or defend American ships under attack in the waters near Japan.

Abe has been working toward this goal ever since his governing coalition’s electoral victory in December 2012.  He has often spoken about how China’s unrelenting assertiveness in the East and South China Seas has raised new concerns in Japan and across the region.  And so, Abe has moved to establish new bilateral security ties with other countries that face similar pressures from China, like the Philippines and Vietnam.  Despite their own wartime experiences with Japanese occupation, both countries have welcomed the new ties.  When Philippine President Benigno Aquino III visited Japan in June 2014, he praised Abe’s efforts to revise Japan’s constitution.  “Nations of goodwill can only benefit if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others,” he argued.[2]  Similarly, Vietnam has supported stronger ties with Japan, signing an agreement to establish an “extensive strategic partnership” in March 2014.  In return, Japan has offered both countries patrol boats to help them better monitor their maritime claims.

Australia has become the latest country to receive Japan’s overtures.  And it too has reciprocated.  In fact, this week Abe is visiting Canberra, where the two countries signed economic partnership pact as well as an agreement on military equipment and technology transfers.  Abe also addressed a joint session of Australia’s parliament and attended a meeting of its national security committee.  Though Australia is a country whose economy has become closely linked to China, it is also increasingly wary of what China’s rise might mean for the region.  Its 2009 strategic defense white paper outlined a need for the country to build a new fleet of a dozen advanced diesel-electric submarines.[3]  On the other hand, Japan is a country with a long history of building such vessels, the latest of which are its Sōryū-class submarines that are equipped with ultra-quiet air-independent propulsion.   After Abe relaxed Japan’s arms export controls in April 2014, the two countries accelerated talks over how Australia could acquire certain defense technologies (and possibly entire submarines) from Japan.  If such acquisitions are eventually made, they would further cement Australia as a true security partner with Japan.

Japan and U.S. Security Relationships in the Asia-Pacific

What has been particularly impressive is the ease with which Japan has developed its new security relationships, all of which were formed in the last year.  (See map.)  A few of these intersect with the many bilateral security ties the United States maintains in the region, whether they are formal treaties (blue) or simply close relationships (green).

Japan is not alone.  Vietnam has extended its search for friends to India and Russia and recently took the step of cooperating with the Philippines, a rival claimant in the South China Sea.  Meanwhile, the Philippines has strengthened its alliance with the United States through a new security pact, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (formerly known as Increased Rotational Presence).  Other Southeast Asian countries have begun to take precautions too.  Even historically quiescent Indonesia has moved to reaffirm its claim to the exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands, a portion of which overlaps China’s South China Sea claim.  Indeed, as long as China forcefully presses its maritime claims and Abe can move Japan towards collective self-defense, Tokyo may find more Asia-Pacific countries receptive to its offer of new security relationships.

[1] Martin Fackler and David E. Sanger, “Japan Announces a Military Shift to Thwart China,” New York Times, Jul. 2, 2014, p. A1.

[2] Sui-Lee Wee and Ben Blanchard, “China says Philippines stirring tensions after Aquino supports Japan,” Reuters, Jun. 25, 2014

[3] Australia, Department of Defence, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030 (Canberra: Department of Defence, 2009), p. 70.