Japan’s Constitutional Dilemma in a Changing Northeast Asia

Japan’s ‘defenseless on all sides’ constitutional security strategy has served it well through the post-war period, underwritten by United States’ security guarantee and continuing presence on Japanese soil. But has this strategy outlived in a changed Northeast Asia?

Posted on 03/15/14
By Peter Drysdale | Via East Asia Forum
Japanese infantry from the 3rd Comat Team of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force pass through the lines of Soldiers from Bravo Troop; 3-38 Cav., 201st BfSB during a live fire training exercise. (Photo by Joint Base Lewis McChord, Creative Commons License)
Japanese infantry from the 3rd Comat Team of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force pass through the lines of soldiers during a live fire training exercise. (Photo by Joint Base Lewis McChord, Creative Commons License)

Japan’s ‘defenseless on all sides’ security strategy has served it well through the post-war period, underwritten as it has been by America’s security guarantee and continuing presence on Japanese soil. Despite the steady accretion of its military capabilities, the ‘peace’ constitution allayed anxieties within Japan’s neighbors, China, South Korea and the newly independent Southeast Asian nations, about Japanese military intentions. Even the US alliance framework could be properly explained, as it famously was by former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, as a bulwark against any resurgence of Japanese militarism. The ANZUS Treaty was after all a US security guarantee to Australia and New Zealand specifically directed at keeping Japan in an American box.


Japan now lives in a very different neighborhood. Its position in the region has changed fundamentally. The role of the United States is also evolving rapidly around the rise of China and others in Asia. Many now see the limits to US reach and there is growing acknowledgement of its vulnerability to Chinese power in the Western Pacific down the track. America’s political commitment to its security partners is being questioned in Japan and South Korea. Some argue that Japan is deliberately testing the strength of the American military commitment in its contest with China in the East China Sea.


So what is the world to make of the Shinzo Abe government’s eagerness to amend the Japanese constitution and its recent posturing toward reinterpreting its defining peace clause, Article 9?


Many in Japan see Article 9 as a restraint imposed upon their country under US Occupation. John Welfield, in his ‘magisterial’ study, Empire in Eclipse, tells a much more complex and subtle story about the role former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida and his followers in crafting Article 9.


In this week’s lead Hitoshi Tanaka provides a masterful review of the issues. While a majority of Japanese polled view constitutional change as necessary, only between 30 and 40 percent want any messing with Article 9, though many thoughtful people in the policy community are aware of the legal inconsistencies and problems in the status quo.


Tanaka makes a careful case for constitutional reinterpretation on the security clause within the framework of Japan’s UN and alliance framework obligations. He observes that “… the current interpretation of the constitution, stipulating that the exercise of the right to collective self-defense is not permitted, was established during the Cold War and fails to respond to the demands of the current security environment. For instance, in the hypothetical case of an emergency situation on the Korean Peninsula, if Japan were to help the United States track a North Korean fighter jet and the US military subsequently shot the jet down, this would be considered to involve integration with US military forces and an unconstitutional exercise of collective self-defense under the current interpretation. But if Japan cannot help the United States under such circumstances, the alliance will undoubtedly be undermined.”


There is already a ‘Law Concerning Measures to Ensure the Peace and Security of Japan in Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan’, as Tanaka explains, and the United States is obliged to defend Japan against attacks as per Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty, “so it is natural that Japan and the United States should cooperate on planning and implementation of defensive operations in such scenarios.”


Tanaka also argues for the normalization of the terms under which Japan can participate in UN Peace Keeping Operations (PKOs).


This is a persuasive case for reinterpreting the constitution, but not change that eschews the ‘pacifist spirit’ of Article 9. The problem, as Tanaka acknowledges, is that constitutional reinterpretation cannot and should not be pursued unless there is active diplomacy directed at persuading Japan’s neighbors, including China and South Korea of its benign and limited intent. Proceeding otherwise would be hugely destabilising, especially under current circumstances.


Tanaka stresses that there are two issues that need to be dealt with along the way to acceptable Japanese constitutional reinterpretation, which in any case needs to follow intensive debate internally and diplomacy throughout the region. The first is to consider how any change fits into a comprehensive US-Japan alliance strategy that stabilises the regional security environment. Otherwise change will exacerbate not ameliorate Japan’s security dilemma. Both ‘the United States and Japan should promote a comprehensive approach to alliance strategy that puts diplomacy at the centre of all policymaking and brings China into the fold as a responsible regional stakeholder by focusing on confidence-building measures, cooperation on trade and investment, rule building, and joint energy cooperation’.


Comprehensive security strategy of this kind, harking back to strategy enunciated under the leadership of late Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira is even more important to Japan now than it has ever been.


Tanaka did not say so, but the worry inside and outside Japan is that Japan’s current leadership is not trusted with this delicate and important task. A few weeks ago US General Herbert ‘Hawk’ Carlisle was moved to distance the US military from Prime Minister Abe’s analogy between current strategic circumstances in East Asia and those in Europe before the Great War. ‘The rise of Germany and what occurred between the UK in particular and Germany, and what happened in Europe, I don’t draw that comparison at all to what’s going on today’ Carlisle said in an interview in Singapore on 10 February. ‘Some of the things, in particular that have been done by Japan, they need to think hard about what is provocative to other nations.The de-escalation of tensions has got to be a multilateral approach and it’s not just one country that needs to de-escalate,” said General Carlisle, a former fighter squadron commander who is responsible for air force operations around more than half the globe, with oversight of 45,000 personnel. ‘All of them do. The risk from miscalculation is high. It’s greater than it should be’.


General Carlisle’s cautions are wise and need to be emphasized by Japan’s friends. They underline Tanaka’s concern about getting the diplomacy right in any move towards constitutional reinterpretation in Japan.


Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum. This article first appeared in East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original article.

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