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Foreign Policy

Abe’s Objectives in ‘Reinterpreting’ Japan’s Peace Constitution

Jul 30 , 2014

With all its deception, disinformation, and diversion, Prime Minister Abe’s carefully choreographed campaign to “reinterpret” Japan’s Peace Constitution to enable “collective self-defense”—actually offensive war–has had the look and feel of a plot from a John le Carré spy novel. 

Stephen Harner

Everyone appreciates that in Japan’s politics and daily life, there is often, if not always, a difference, and it can be a big and fundamental difference, between honne—what a person really thinks—and tatemae—what he says. 

What, we may ask, is the Abe’s honne on “collective self-defense”? To get to the answer, we should deal first with the tatemae. This is simply that Japan’s no longer controversial (albeit, according to a strict interpretation of Article 9, thereby forsworn) right of “self-defense” should be extended to include the defense of an ally under attack. 

A well-written article by Lionel Pierre Fatton, in the July 10 The Diplomat gives the background: “Past governments have maintained that Japan possessed the right to collective self-defense under international law, more specifically under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, but that Article 9…prevented the country from exercising this right because doing so would go beyond the minimum necessary for national defense.” 

This is the constitutional interpretation or principle, termed “exclusively defensive defense,” that since 1981 has been accepted and written into the law governing Self Defense Forces (SDF). “Exclusively defensive defense” allows Japan’s military to act to defend Japan only if it is attacked directly and requires use of the minimum level of force necessary. 

Australian Defense Force Academy professor Aurelia George Mulgan writing in the June 3 The Diplomat quotes Abe as justifying collective self-defense by saying “under the current Constitution, we can’t participate in combat outside the country, and so it [the Constitution] cannot protect people’s lives.” Mulgan avers, correctly, that Abe’s argument “does not stand up to close scrutiny,” as “participating in combat ‘outside the country’ does not necessarily enhance Japan’s ability to defend itself. In fact, it may endanger Japan’s security further by drawing it into conflict that it might otherwise have avoided.”

What, then, is the real honne thinking of Abe and his circle of hard line nationalists, most prominently his likely successor, Ishiba Shigeru, secretary-general of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party?

It is clear that Abe’s objectives do not end with “collective self-defense.” Nor are they limited in the strictest sense to self-defense. If they were, then no change in the doctrine of “exclusively defensive defense” would be necessary.

Clearly, Abe’s objective is to restructure and build up the capability of Japan’s military forces to launch offensive attacks. The interesting question is why he and his clique are so intent on this objective.

The somewhat simplistic though not completely incorrect answer is that the United States has put pressure on Japan to do precisely this. Further, Washington has seized the opportunity of Abe’s parliamentary majorities—and opposition party disarray–to push him and Japan into action, and has provided at critical times needed expressions of support, since the Japanese public has been and remains mostly opposed to Abe’s initiative.

In short, Abe has responded to U.S. arm-twisting to “deliver” on Japan’s contribution to the U.S.-Japan alliance.

A SDF collective self-defense role will mean greatly expanded SDF functions, missions, protocols and doctrines, requiring greatly augmented and enhanced command and control structures and offensively re-tasked forces and weapons. Timing seems a critical factor. A deadline of this year end has been set by the Pentagon for redrafting the alliance’s “Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation.”

How the “Guidelines” can be revised before the Diet passes enabling revisions to the SDF Law remains to be seen. Abe slyly chose not to submit a decision on collective self-defense to the Diet, or to propose formally amending the constitution. Rather, he chose the sleight of hand of constitutional “reinterpretation” by his cabinet. But nothing can really change until the Diet amends the SDF Law under which, as Professor Mulgan notes, if a particular function is not authorized, then it is prohibited.

What seems likely is that the expanded SDF role will be written into “draft” new Guidelines, in a way that presents the Diet with a fait accompli. 

Needless to say, we can be sure that the scenarios the Pentagon and the SDF will come up with for joint “collective defense” planning and, later, exercises will assume an active threat—or actual attack–from China. Now the attack need not be directly to Japan, but could, instead, be against somewhere else (for example, in the Spratly or Paracel Islands) where the United States has intervened. 

As much as Abe may be responding to U.S. pressure to contribute more to the alliance, there is undoubtedly more to Abe’s thinking—an unmentioned, or unmentionable honne. This is the need for a “hedge”—if not a fully articulate plan—against the possibility that the U.S. commitment to the alliance may one day be formally withdrawn or, more likely, may simply be recognized by all to be illusory, a fiction that dares not speak its name.

One can imagine Abe and his clique debating how the United States would act should the dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands suddenly escalate to hot conflict. Would United States leaders really sacrifice American lives and risk war with China in this dispute, which has arisen in large part because of Japan’s continuing belligerence?

The answer is clearly that they would not risk war with China. And there is virtually no other remotely likely scenario in which American interests would justify going to war with anyone in defense of Japan. This realization is the honne that Abe must understand but dares not speak. It is the realization informing his current actions, and the impetus that will drive later moves. 

Although appearing to be drawing closer to the U.S. and the “alliance,” Abe is clearly taking the first steps toward a fully independent defense posture.  

Stephen M. Harner is a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer who served in Beijing and Tokyo, he is currently a banker and consultant in China and Japan. He is also a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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