Japan’s prime minister announced a reinterpretation of the country’s pacifist Constitution on Tuesday, freeing its military for the first time in over 60 years to play a more assertive role in the increasingly tense region.
The decision by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will permit Japan to use its large and technologically advanced armed forces in ways that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago when they were limited to defending the country. The revision will allow the military to come to the aid of friendly countries under attack, including the United States.
Japan’s stance is part of a rapidly shifting balance of power in Asia, where China and its growing military are mounting a serious challenge to the regional dominance of the United States and its allies, including Japan, and making assertive claims to vast areas of two strategically important seas. The hawkish Mr. Abe’s response is certain to anger the Chinese — who have never forgiven Japan for its World War II-era invasion — and could set Asia’s two biggest powers even more on edge.
“The growing pressure from China has changed the political debate within Japan,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political expert at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo.
The Abe government’s decision, which appears likely to go into effect this fall, was announced as China’s leader was set to arrive in Seoul for what many analysts viewed as an attempt to begin to pry away South Korea from its traditional ally, the United States.
The new policy is the culmination of a quarter-century of debate in Japan over whether pacifism was the best way to assure the world that it would never again fall into the mind-set that led it to conquer much of Asia and pursue a disastrous war, or whether, decades after Japan’s defeat, that thinking had made the country vulnerable to new threats.
The antiwar Constitution remains enough of a touchstone for many in Japan that the reinterpretation has spurred rare street protests, and even the self-immolation of a lone protester in Tokyo this week. But at least so far, the pushback against the change, termed “collective self-defense,” seemed fairly limited after years of headlines about Chinese military planes and ships challenging Japan’s near disputed islands.
While Japan’s military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, would still face severe restrictions on what it could do, it would be allowed for the first time to take such actions as come to the aid of an American ship under attack, or shoot down a North Korean missile heading toward the United States.
The Obama administration said Tuesday that it welcomed Japan’s action, adding that it would aid the country’s armed forces to “do more within the framework of our alliance.” But the Abe government’s move also posed challenges for the president. His administration has struggled to patch up differences between Japan and South Korea, which is also bitter over Japan’s imperialist history, and managing the tensions with China may now prove more difficult than ever before.
Japanese leaders for years have been edging their country away from its passive security stance. They agreed to join Western efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan by transporting cargo and refueling other navies’ ships, bought weapons that blurred the lines between defensive and offensive, and under Mr. Abe, doled out increasing military-related aid to neighbors who share Japan’s anxiety over China.
But the latest move differs from many of those actions in that it fundamentally changes the reading of the postwar Constitution and seems to take Japan further than ever from the renunciation of force as a way of settling disputes.
Mr. Abe, a longtime influential conservative, has tried in the past to win approval for a wholesale rewriting of the Constitution, part of his campaign to make Japan what he calls a more “normal” country that no longer hides its power out of shame for wartime transgressions. Lack of public support for those attempts, in part, cost him his job seven years ago, the last time he was prime minister.
Since then, the region has been transformed not only by China’s rise, but also a deterioration of American dominance that is leading several countries in the region to try to beef up their own military abilities.
Although Asia is not yet in an outright arms race, Richard J. Samuels, director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Japan’s move showed that it and other countries were having to think more seriously about their own security than ever before.
“This is a recognition among these nations that U.S. capabilities are not what they were,” he said. “They are looking for a way to keep the U.S. in the neighborhood while also reaching out to each other in new ways.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Japan experimented for the first time in joining United Nations peacekeeping operations; even that seemingly innocuous use of the military spurred major protests. American officials also spent years in secret talks about what kind of facilities in Japan would be available to them in case they needed a staging area in any conflict with North Korea; again, Japanese politicians and bureaucrats were leery of seeming to be too helpful, even though their own territory was at risk.
But more nationalistic politicians, including Mr. Abe, began the debate about ensuring Japan was not so beholden to Washington for its defense. And books like “The Japan That Can Say No,” written by the founder of Sony Corporation, Akio Morita, and the one-time governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, made the case that Japan needed a military policy that matched its role as the No. 2 economy in the world.
Today, though, it is No. 3, having been displaced by China. And in the end, it is a sense of vulnerability, analysts said, rather than any notion that Japan will be on the rise again soon, that has driven the change.
Mr. Abe had sought even broader leeway this year for his nation’s military, but he was forced to compromise amid resistance from both his governing Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, a small Buddhist party. Under the revision, Japan’s self-defense forces could act only when its leaders felt an attack on a friendly nation, or that country’s armed forces, would pose a “clear danger” to Japan.
Parliament must still clear legal barriers to the constitutional reinterpretation by revising more than a dozen laws, experts and lawmakers said. However, with Mr. Abe’s governing coalition enjoying a comfortable majority in both houses, the change seemed all but certain to become reality.
In a speech broadcast live on national television Tuesday, Mr. Abe sought to allay opponents’ concerns by stating that the new policy would not drag Japan into distant, American-led wars. But he also said that it would help Japan forge closer ties with the United States, which has 50,000 military personnel in the country and which the Japanese government hopes will make a clearer show of support in the islands dispute with China.
“This is not going to change Japan into a country that wages wars,” Mr. Abe said. “A strengthened Japan-United States alliance is a force of deterrence that contributes to the peace of Japan and this region.”
In Washington, a senior administration official characterized the changes as one of “getting Japan up to a normal baseline of operations in collective self-defense.” But it was also a recognition, the official said, that the constraints on Japan’s military were unworkable: In Iraq, Japanese forces were prohibited from coming to the defense of other members of the coalition.
And while the president of the Philippines said in Tokyo last week that he supported Japan’s doing more to help offset China’s increasingly assertive claims in the region, China and South Korea argued in the run-up to Mr. Abe’s announcement that a rearmed Japan raises bitter memories. A commentary by Xinhua, China’s state-run news service, warned that Mr. Abe was “dallying with the specter of war.”
While Mr. Abe focused his comments on closer ties with the United States, analysts said the new policy could also make it easier for Japan to seek new military alliances with the Philippines and other nations that have similar territorial disputes with China.
“Japan is experiencing a security renaissance,” said Andrew L. Oros, director of international studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. “What is remarkable is not that things are changing, but that they are changing with so little fanfare.”
Source: The New York Times