Last month Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled a bill to bolster the country’s security and defense architecture. The proposed changes are largely in response to evolving threats and geopolitical shifts in the region. China’s coercive actions to settle its territorial dispute with Japan in the East China Sea and a similar row with its neighbors over the South China Sea, coupled with North Korea’s continued intransigence, have created a more hostile security environment for Japan.
But Abe’s proposal is facing stiff resistance from Japanese lawmakers. Most of the opposition to the bill is based on misperceptions. Critics claim that it would endanger Japan’s postwar commitment to pacifism. The bill’s proponents, including Abe, stress that the changes are necessary to align Japan’s security posture with a shifting geostrategic environment.
The legislation signals a critical turning point for Japan’s traditionally pacifist security postures; while controversial, it marks an important step for Japan as it adjusts to emerging threats. The proposed changes would allow Tokyo to play a more proactive role in international conflicts and complement its growing cooperation with the U.S. on security matters. They would also help Tokyo coordinate efforts with other partners in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia and India.
The revisions touch on two broad categories: Japan’s security and the country’s involvement in international peace and security initiatives. The most significant changes would be to the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Under current law, the SDF is prohibited from using force when rescuing Japanese citizens trapped in conflicts abroad. Until 2013, the SDF was limited to evacuating citizens only by air or sea and did not permit land-based rescue efforts.
The proposed changes would allow the SDF to use weapons during rescue efforts, as long as there is consent from the state in question. The revisions would also permit the SDF to rescue non-Japanese citizens in certain conditions (e.g., foreign nationals held captive with Japanese citizens). These changes were prompted in large part by Tokyo’s feeble response to a hostage crisis in Algeria in 2013, when hundreds of international and Algerian workers were captured at a gas plant there. Hamstrung by an antiquated security mechanism and legislative restrictions, the Abe administration was unable to free its citizens, and 10 Japanese nationals were killed during a raid conducted by Algerian government.
Another critical element of the proposed bill concerns Abe’s efforts to reinterpret constitutional limits on Japan’s ability to respond to an armed attack against the U.S. or other key partners. An oft-cited example of this collective self-defense exercise is a potential North Korean missile attack on a U.S. military asset that flies over Japanese territory. Under previous restrictions, Tokyo cannot use force unless the attack presents a clear threat to Japan. If approved, the new bill would allow the Japanese military to intercept such an attack in defense of an ally. This change would complement the new U.S.-Japanese defense guidelines, which increase the scope of cooperation between Tokyo and Washington on defense.
Pushback from opposition political parties resulted in the adoption of three key limitations to the collective self-defense clause. First, in order for the SDF to use lethal force, an armed attack against the U.S. or other partners must threaten Japan’s survival and pose a clear danger to its citizens. Second, there must be no other available options other than the use of force. And finally, the use of force must be kept to the minimum extent possible. These restrictions place fairly significant limits on the SDF’s more expansive role, which some of Abe’s critics see as a gradual militarization.
Other key proposed changes to the current law include an expanded role for the SDF to use force when serving overseas as part of United Nations peacekeeping operations, the ability to engage in multinational peacekeeping efforts outside the U.N. framework, providing support activities to foreign partners on collective security operations, greater capacity to inspect ships suspected of posing a threat to international peace and security and the ability to provide military and logistical support to the U.S. in peacetime.
After Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party struck a compromise last month with Komeito, the party’s junior governing coalition partner, the government appears on track to pass the legislation despite resistance from the opposition. Yet this has not stopped a spirited debate in the legislature. Last month Katsuya Okada, the president of the Democratic Party of Japan, said the reforms carry the potential for mission creep on Japan’s exercise of collective self-defense. Okada demanded assurances from Abe that the SDF would not invade a foreign country — by air, land or sea — in support of its allies. Article 9 of Japan’s 1947 constitution outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes.
In addition to these concerns, even if the bill becomes law, Abe would still need to convince a skeptical Japanese electorate about the necessity of a more muscular security and foreign policy. Several recent polls found that most Japanese remain opposed to Abe’s attempts to reinterpret the limits of Japan’s collective self-defense. Moreover, skepticism remains over Japan’s growing defense ties with the U.S. as outlined in the new bilateral defense guidelines, released during Abe’s recent visit to the United States.
The ongoing debate and public reservations on defense and security reforms are important in light of Abe’s more ambitious goal of amending the Japanese Constitution. Revising it would be an uphill battle, as doing so requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature and a majority vote in a national referendum. At the moment, Abe cannot clear that threshold, and he knows that. And the political capital spent on pushing through the security bill may inhibit his ability to maneuver the legal constraints.
Japan’s proposed reforms and its potentially active role in global peace and security matters have been well received in the U.S., the European Union, India and most Southeast Asian countries. But there is deep skepticism in China and, to a lesser extent, South Korea over Abe’s motives. However, critics at home and abroad should not misconstrue the bill as a broader trend toward militarization. Moreover, Japan’s proposed changes would complement Washington’s rebalance to Asia and could help reaffirm important regional norms such as the freedom of navigation and the rule of law.