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Japan rethinks its pacifist security policy

Shamshad Ahmed Khan was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here to for detailed profile
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  • August 27, 2009

    Japan seems set to overhaul its pacifist security policy with the ongoing formulation of a new National Defense Programme Guidelines (NDPG) for fiscal 2010-2014. The NDPG lays out Japan’s basic policy on its defence strength. The current NDPG expires at the end of this year.

    Ahead of the NDPG, an advisory panel on security and defence capability has submitted its recommendations to the Prime Minister urging the government to grant the right to exercise collective self defence to the Japanese Self Defense Forces, relax the ban on arms exports, enact a permanent law for dispatching SDF units on overseas missions, and consider capabilities needed to target military bases in enemy territory. In its report the panel argued that “the environment concerning Japan’s national security is changing rapidly, creating the need for a new approach to its defence capabilities.” It added that the 1957 basic national defence policy can no longer serve as a concrete guideline for defence planning and that it needs to be reexamined. The 1957 basic defence policy, adopted during Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke’s government, calls for gradually improving self defence capabilities within necessary limits in accordance with Japan’s resources and socio-political situation. Japan has firmly adhered to the 1957 basic defence policy ever since its adoption.

    More importantly, the advisory panel considered a “relative decline of the US power” as one reason for the need to augment Japan’s defence capability. Noting that the power of the United States, which has been the driving force of a free and open global system, has weakened in relative terms, the panel suggested that Japan adopt a more flexible approach to its national security strategy. However, the observation about America’s relative decline by the panel is not be construed as in any wall a call for weakening the US-Japan security alliance. Japan will continue to rely on US power to deal with contingencies. On the question of whether Japan should posses the capability of attacking bases in enemy territory, Japanese media reports quoted the panel as suggesting that the country should study the suitability and cost effectiveness of equipment and operational procedures to this end on the condition that should such contingencies arise Tokyo and Washington would work together to deal with them.

    As regards the right to “collective self defence,” the government so far has maintained that Japan possesses this right as a member of the United Nations, but that it cannot exercise this right since Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which renounces the use of force to settle disputes, does not allow the exercise of this right. This means that Japan can only launch a counter-attack, that it cannot repel an attack on its ally, and can only use force if both Japan and its ally are attacked.

    This approach has been criticized by several security experts as amounting to taking a “free ride” on America. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe constituted a panel headed by Shunji Yanai to suggest ways as to how Japan could exercise collective self-defense and help its American ally in the wake of North Korean nuclear and missile threats. The Yanai panel took a year to complete its findings in 2008 and submitted its report to Abe’s successor Yasuo Fukuda. Its report suggested that the government should allow the use of the right of collective self-defence in two cases, namely “protection of U.S. military vessels in international waters” and “interception of ballistic missiles likely to be heading for the United States.” The panel also suggested the need for a constitutional reinterpretation on exercising the right of collective self defence. But Yasuo Fukuda did not accept these recommendations saying that “sufficient discussions are necessary on what kind of international activities the Self-Defense Forces may exercise under the right to collective self-defense in terms of the constitutional interpretation.” This statement was viewed as aimed at not angering neighbouring countries which see each step of Japan’s defence augmentation as a lurch towards militarism.

    Thus, the suggestion by the advisory panel on security and defence on exerciseing the right of collective self-defence is not new, though it has renewed the demand following North Korea’s second nuclear test. The report has proposed a review of the ban on collective self-defence to allow its forces to shoot down ballistic missiles launched by North Korea heading towards the US and also to permit the SDF to defend US Navy ships monitoring missile launches.

    Japan’s defence white paper released a month earlier also cited North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes as a great threat to Japan and pointed out the possibility that the North is not only lengthening the range of its missiles but is also improving their accuracy. Similar sentiments have been expressed in the Liberal Democratic Party’s election manifesto released this month. The LDP’s manifesto says that “in order to protect Japan from the threat of missile and nuclear weapons from North Korea, we will take the steps necessary to make possible a ballistic missile defense system that is closely coordinated with US warships.” The party pledges to “enact a law that will enable the SDF to quickly join international peacekeeping operations,” a suggestion also given by the panel on security and defence. As regards the suggestion by the panel to reinterpret the war renunciation clause of the Constitution for exercising the right of collective self-defence, the LDP has gone a step further by promising the revision of the Constitution. The sentiments echoed in the ruling LDP’s election manifesto, in Japan’s defence white paper and in the recommendations of the Panel for an overhaul of the “defense only posture” make it clear that Japan is ready to unshackle the pacifist security policies it had been pursuing since 1957.

    As far as restrictions on weapons exports are concerned, Japan had, consistent with the policies of the West, adopted a policy of banning arms sales and sharing of technologies with Communist countries in the 1960s. Later, public pressure forced the Takeo Miki administration in 1976 to convert this policy into a blanket ban on arms exports to all countries. The advisory panel on security and defence has argued in its report that the principles for banning arms exports are preventing Japan from participating in international research projects for developing and producing weapons and that these principles should be made exceptions rather than rules. This suggestion is similar to the demands made by the industry body Nippon Keidanren (Japan’s Business Federation), which wants to maximize its technological advantage by entering the international market. Thus, it seems that new security challenges as well as entrepreneurial politics are pushing Japan into a rethink on the ban on arms exports.

    But how soon the Japanese government would act on the report’s recommendations is uncertain. Like the previous report submitted by Shunji Yanai, the fate of this report also hangs in balance. It has been submitted at a time when Japan has entered into general elections mode and a political change appears imminent. Whether the incoming government will accept the report remains a big question. Yukio Hatoyama the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan has stated that “if we take over the government, we will review this report in accordance with our perspectives.” The previous stance taken by Hatoyama on revising the Constitution, on Japan’s participation in international security as well as his call for “firm measures against North Korea in cooperation with international community to induce it to abandon the development, possession and deployment of nuclear weapons,” suggest that he is a realist and is unlikely to ignore the reality in Japan’s security domain.