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Japan’s collective security push sparks controversy

Japan’s stepped-up push for collective self-defense is arousing both concerns and positive expectations as Tokyo pursues a greater security role under its slogan of “active pacifism,” amid rampant suspicions about its true intentions.

On Thursday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed Tokyo’s position on altering the interpretation of the 1947 pacifist constitution to allow for collective self-defense ― the use of force to support its allies if they are attacked.

His announcement came after his private security advisory panel submitted to him a report that called on his government to change the long-held interpretation of Article 9 of the constitution that bans Japan from waging war and possessing potential war materials.
National Defense Academy of Japan cadets march to class at the NDA campus in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, on Monday, (Bloomberg)
National Defense Academy of Japan cadets march to class at the NDA campus in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, on Monday, (Bloomberg)

The envisioned change would mark the most significant shift in Japan’s exclusively defensive postwar security policy.

The report cited a series of scenarios for collective self-defense including a U.S. warship under attack at high sea; interception of a ballistic missile heading toward the U.S.; and inspection of a foreign vessel in a contingency in areas close to Japan.

The panel also enumerated six requirements for the exercise of the right including when a country with “close ties” with Japan is under attack; when Japan’s security is threatened if force is not used; and when a country under attack explicitly calls for support.

The others are when the premier decides to use force; when the Diet approves the premier’s decision; and when Tokyo secures permission from a third country if its forces are to pass through the country’s territory.

Seoul took a cautious stance on Tokyo’s position, saying that Japan should not exercise the right to collective self-defense in a peninsular contingency unless there was an official request from South Korea.

“Our basic position is that we can’t tolerate Tokyo’s exercise of the right without our request should the application of the right affect the security on the peninsula and our national interest,” Seoul’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Kim Min-seok told reporters.

Japan seeks collective self-defense as part of its efforts to rebuild its national identity as a formidable regional power to keep the emergent China in check, said Kim Heung-kyu, diplomacy professor at Ajou University.

“Japan is at a critical crossroads now to determine whether it will remain a strong regional power or descend into a middle-power state. I think Japan’s decision is to be a regional power by strengthening its alliance with the U.S., and its military and political prowess,” he said.

“Collective self-defense is one means to support the U.S.-Japan alliance and set a legal framework to establish the legitimate modus operandi for its use of military power (restrained under the pacifist constitution).”

Dilemma for Seoul

Japan’s push for this right poses a dilemma for the government in Korea, where growing anti-Japanese sentiment is overshadowing the importance of practical security cooperation with its onetime colonizer.

“Korea is in an awkward position over the issue of Japan’s collective self-defense. It is because it cannot publicly oppose Tokyo’s move in consideration of its security ties with the U.S., and at the same time, Seoul should also confront domestic opinion,” said Lee Jung-hwan, assistant professor at the School of International and Area Studies of Kookmin University.

Seoul’s primary concern stems from the possibility that Japanese troops could enter the Korean Peninsula in an emergency, under the pretext of supporting the U.S. ― a scenario unacceptable for a country harboring bitter memories of Japan’s wartime atrocities.

Japan’s military intervention in a peninsular contingency is unthinkable for many, due particularly to Korea’s historical animosity toward Japan, which has yet to fully atone for its imperial-era misdeeds, including its enslavement of Korean women at frontline military brothels during World War II.

Despite public discomfort over Japan seeking an active military role, Seoul has not been explicitly opposed to it in consideration of the role of the U.S.-Japanese security alliance, which analysts say is one of the three pillars of peninsular defense. The other two pillars are the Korea-U.S. alliance and Korea’s own self-defense capabilities.

“With Japan’s collective defense, the U.S.-Japan alliance would be strengthened. Given the role of the alliance in case of a peninsular crisis, Tokyo’s use of the right could help South Korea’s security in some respects,” said Park Young-june, Japan expert at the Korea National Defense University.

“Thus, in light of this security aspect apart from the public sentiment, Seoul would feel that it is difficult to just criticize Japan’s security move.”

Another cause of concern for Seoul is that its potential support for Tokyo’s collective defense could strain its ties with Beijing, which apparently views Japan’s efforts to bolster its military role and alliance with the U.S. as being designed to counter the rise of China.

From a broader perspective, some experts said that Seoul should begin considering what position it would take should the U.S., Japan and China engage in serious conflict over a chain of disputed islands in the East China Sea, claimed by Tokyo and Beijing.

Such a consideration is crucial, given that China, with which Seoul hopes to maintain a strategic partnership, sees Japan’s collective self-defense as intended to ultimately keep it in check, the experts noted.

“We appear to think only about our security concerning North Korea, the East Sea and littoral areas when it comes to Japan’s pursuit of collective self-defense,” said Lee of Kookmin University. “But Seoul should think hard about what kind of position it would take on the East China Sea dispute and others as part of its long-term national plan.”

China is likely to express strong opposition to Japan’s push for collective self-defense. But Kim of Ajou University said that after all, Beijing might focus on urging Japan to exercise the right within the confines of a transparent system to prevent Japan’s unbridled use of the right.

“China may know that it cannot block Japan’s push for the right in realistic terms, although it can keep criticizing it. It would, ultimately, focus on calling on Tokyo to contrive a transparent, restrictive way, which would not cause any friction with it,” he said.

Japan’s greater security role

Japan’s pursuit of collective self-defense comes as it seeks to become a “normal state” with a full-fledged military.

Despite the lingering domestic opposition about Tokyo stretching the limits of its pacifist constitution, right-wingers have pushed for Japan to take a stronger security role in the face of China’s growing assertiveness and North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling.

Analysts say that Japan’s moves for heavier armament have also been driven by its wish to restore national pride, which has been sapped by a long-running economic slump, the rapid rise of once-weak neighbors such as Korea and China, and social anxieties stemming from frequent natural disasters.

The apparent collapse of the opposition bloc or the absence of any powerful countervailing force in Japanese politics is also cited as one reason why the conservative ruling bloc is allowed to pursue its hawkish security agenda without critical political friction.

Against this backdrop, the security hawk Abe has pushed to make a “strong” Japan under his mantra of “active pacifism,” a term apparently intended to quiet Seoul and Beijing’s suspicions about Japan’s intentions.

Apart from its move to alter the interpretation of Article 9 of the constitution to allow for collective self-defense, the Abe administration has completed or been pushing for a series of measures to bolster its security role.

The measures include establishing a national security council; passing a secrecy law; increasing defense spending; lifting its arms export ban; forming a marine unit; and purchasing offensive weapons systems including long-range rockets.

Seoul and Beijing have watched Japan’s moves toward collective self-defense with great suspicion, raising the possibility of the revival of its militarism. But analysts said it was unlikely that Japan would go on an imperialist rampage again.

“Within the limits of the U.S.-Japan alliance, there would be a series of preconditions to apply the right to collective self-defense,” said Park of the Korea National Defense University.

“I personally think that it would be rash to presume that the change in Japan’s security policy would seriously undermine peace and stability in the region and beyond. Like Germany playing a positive security role within the limits of NATO, Japan is expected to pursue that kind of security role.”

U.S. pressure

The U.S. has long wanted Japan’s military buildup and exercise of the right to collective self-defense. Washington has felt uneasy that despite the long-standing security partnership, Tokyo, bound by the constitution, could not come to the defense of the U.S. if it is attacked.

While deepening its diplomatic and military engagement in the strategically crucial Asia-Pacific, the U.S. has apparently wanted Japan to serve as an anchor in its East Asia policy by exerting more of its military might to keep the regional balance of power from being reshaped by the rise of China.

In this respect, Abe’s penchant for a stronger military is a positive development for the U.S., although Washington feels uneasy about Abe’s provocative remarks and deeds that seemed to glorify, gloss over and whitewash his country’s militaristic past.

Washington’s pressure on Japan to exercise rights to collective self-defense and collective security began decades ago. During the Cold War, the U.S. wanted Japan to play a military role to block communist expansion, ditching its initial plan to demilitarize the country.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the international calls have also increased for Japan to make direct military commitments to world peace and stability rather than begrudgingly making monetary contributions.

The U.S. anger over a mercantilist Japan free-riding on its security protection came to a head in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The Persian Gulf conflict brought Japan into political disarray, as Japan did not have political consensus on the issue of engaging in overseas military conflicts, nor did it have a legal framework to allow for overseas deployments.

In the end, Tokyo decided to send a financial contribution worth $13 billion to support the U.S.-led international coalition force, but the payment was derided as “checkbook diplomacy.” To mitigate the growing criticism of Japan refusing to send troops to battle zones, Japan began taking steps to increase its security role.

In 1992, Japan’s legislature passed the U.N. Peacekeeping Operations Cooperation bill to establish a legal basis for deploying military personnel overseas. The bill limited the Self Defense Forces’ role to logistical and humanitarian aid, but it was a big step for the country.

Since the traumatic experience regarding the Middle East hostilities, Japan has made a set of legal frameworks that allowed it to offer logistical support for U.S. military operations. Particularly after the deadly Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. in 2001, Japan further expanded the role of the SDF to provide rear-area, noncombat support for the U.S.-led war on terror.

With the U.S. pressure, coupled with international calls for Japan’s greater security contributions, Tokyo has been moving to rebuild its military. China’s growing assertiveness over the disputed islands under Japan’s control has further pushed Tokyo to strengthen its security might and power projection capabilities, observers said.

Washington has welcomed Japan’s moves to enhance its economic and military clout, as it helps its Asia policy, which analysts say seeks to strengthen the U.S. network of alliances and other security partnerships to secure the status quo being challenged by the ascent of China.

By Song Sang-ho (