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Japan reinterprets defence part of constitution

3 July 2014

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet has approved a reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution to extend the Self-Defence Forces’ powers to ‘collective self-defence’. This could enable Japan to support a close ally in case of an attack - such as for instance shooting down North Korean missiles fired at the US. It could also lead to greater Japanese participation in UN peacekeeping roles and potentially EU CSDP missions.

The proposal still has to pass the parliament, in which Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) holds an absolute majority. By reinterpreting the constitution instead of revising it, Abe avoids the need of a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet followed by holding a public referendum. The announcement sparked protests of several thousand people in Tokyo with one man setting himself alight. Polls over the last months had shown that a slim majority of the Japanese people were against the change. While Abe and his supporters argue it is a step towards Japan becoming a normal modern nation, critics perceive it as creeping re-militarisation. Abe said the change did not mean that Japan could take part in any multilateral war, such as supporting the US in Iraq. He further said the step was ‘strictly a defensive measure to defend our people. We will not resort to the use of force in order to defend foreign forces.’

The change is subject to three conditions: the ally Japan can support has to be one Japan shares a ‘very close relationship’ with, the use of military force is only acceptable if there are no other diplomatic or negotiated means to protect Japan and/or its citizens, and it has to be kept to a ‘bare minimum’. Obviously, all three conditions are open for interpretation.

Brad Glosserman, executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, argues that these three conditions are a sign of opposition within Abe’s alliance with the New Komeito Party and that they show strong constraints on what Abe would be able to do, also given the strong public resistance.

International reactions were as anticipated: The Obama administration welcomed Japan’s move and stated that it enabled Japan to ‘do more within the framework of our alliance’. In a much-cited opinion piece published by Xinhua, author Deng Yushan writes that Abe’s ‘trickery also poses a menace to regional security’ and calls the reinterpretation a ‘blatant betrayal of the pacifism enshrined in Japan’s constitution’, with Abe ‘dallying with the specter of war’. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei urged Japan ‘to earnestly respect legitimate security concerns of its Asian neighbours’ and ‘not to undermine regional peace and stability’.

Even though the only country that could be said to share a ‘very close relationship’ with Japan would be the US, China’s worries are that Japan’s Self-Defence Forces could use their increased power to support The Philippines and Vietnam in their disputes with China in the South China Sea.

South Korea, which is also engaged in a minor islands dispute with Japan, said it would ‘not tolerate’ Japan’s actions that apparently took place without South Korea’s consultation.

It remains to be seen when and how Abe will make use of the SDF’s soon to be extended powers and how he will balance the public’s concerns with what he sees as Japan’s interest. However, this reinterpretation is clearly not designed to ease the already existing tensions in East Asia.

Abe’s move will no doubt face criticism when President Xi visits President Park in Seoul today. It is interesting that Xi has decided to visit South Korea before North Korea. At the same time Japan and North Korea are holding talks about resolving the emotional abductees issue. The frozen geopolitics of North East Asia could be starting to shift.