Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made it public Thursday that Tokyo would seek to exercise the right of collective self-defense, which would allow his country to fight alongside its allies beyond its borders.
The right has been considered beyond what is permitted under Japan’s pacifist constitution. Article 9 of the constitution, which has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, stipulates the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.” Circumventing the difficult process of revising the constitution, Abe has taken the course of voiding the article by having the government reinterpret the basic law.
He announced the change in Tokyo’s position on collective self-defense in a news conference shortly after he received a report from a panel of experts who have deliberated on the matter for the past year. This formality of basing his announcement on the advisory group’s recommendations did little to reduce its association with Abe, who had appointed all its 14 members and had also kept in touch with them in the process of drawing up the paper.
He is expected to do his utmost to gain consent from the New Komeito Party, the dovish junior partner in the coalition government, in the hope of the constitutional reinterpretation being approved by his Cabinet as early as next month. If the work to enact related bills and revise the guidelines for defense cooperation with the U.S. go as scheduled, Japan will be ready to exercise the right of collective self-defense by next year.
The basic directions suggested by Abe include scenarios of a war on the Korean Peninsula in the conditions under which Japan may invoke the right. It is envisioned that Japan’s military will escort U.S. aircraft and vessels evacuating Japanese citizens, respond to attacks on American naval ships in open seas and intercept ballistic missiles headed for the continental U.S.
South Korea has made clear its stance that Japan should seek explicit consent from Seoul if it is to exercise the right of collective self-defense in case of emergencies on the peninsula. Abe’s government has responded by saying Japan would never send its military to the peninsula without agreement from South Korea. But there remain suspicions here that it would renege on its words as it went beyond the commonsense scope of the war-renouncing constitution.
Abe and other right-wing Japanese politicians need to refrain from angering the South Korean government and public with insensitive acts and remarks regarding historical and territorial disputes between the two countries to avoid the issue of collective self-defense further straining bilateral ties. Tokyo is also urged to be more positive toward resolving the matter of the imperial Japanese army’s sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II.
Abe’s push for an expanded role for the Japanese military, backed by the U.S., comes at a time when the threat from the unpredictable North Korean regime is growing and China’s increasing assertiveness is worrying its neighbors. These circumstances appear to have caused his move for collective self-defense to get less blowback than it otherwise might have done.
In the long-term, however, it seems doubtful that Abe’s choice will serve to bring a better future for his nation. The value of Japan’s pacifist constitution, which has been the solid foundation for its postwar recovery and prosperity, is nothing that can be given away to pursue what may prove to be misguided political aspirations.
The most serious problem with the report adopted by Abe is that, on the pretext of national security, it would open the way for the top law to be altered on the whim of government. Having taken the lead in setting a precedent that threatens the foundation of Japan’s constitutional democracy, Abe might have to witness his successors resorting to similar means to force a change that goes against his convictions.