China Leery as Japan Steps Away From Decades of Official Pacifism

By Patrick Goodenough | July 1, 2014 | 4:11 AM EDT

Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces destroyers, Isoyuki and Shirayuki. (Photo: MSDF)

( – Risking increased tensions with a deeply suspicious China, Japan’s cabinet was set Tuesday to approve the country’s most far-reaching security policy reform in six decades, reinterpreting its pacifist constitution to allow limited exercise of the right of collective self-defense.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, unable to win sufficient support to amend the constitution’s war-renouncing article nine, has instead revised the prevailing interpretation of the constitution, which was drafted by the U.S. after Imperial Japan’s defeat in World War II.

His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led coalition formally approved the change Tuesday, ahead of cabinet endorsement later in the day.

Because of article nine, which bans the use of force to settle international disputes, Japan 60 years ago on Tuesday established air, sea and land Self Defense Forces rather than a traditional military.

Tuesday’s decision means the constitution will be interpreted as allowing Japan to use the minimum force necessary in a case where an ally – specifically, a country with close ties to Japan – comes under attack, and there is a clear danger threatening to undermine the fundamental rights of the Japanese people.

Washington has long sought an adjustment to Japan’s defense policy in a changing regional and global security environment.

“Our view [is] that Japan has every right … to equip themselves in the way they deem necessary,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday. “We encourage them to do that in a transparent manner, and we remain in touch with them about these important issues.”

After 9/11, Japan sent ships to refuel coalition vessels involved in anti-terror operations and later deployed non-combat troops to help rehabilitation efforts in Iraq. Because of the constitutional limitations, those initiatives required the passage of special laws.

An editorial in the conservative daily Yomiuri Shimbun called the new move “an epoch-making agreement that is critical for Japan’s security,” and said its aim was to enhance deterrence “by strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance and international cooperation.”

“Japan’s security environment has gone through a fundamental transformation,” it said. “No single nation can keep peace by itself, given the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles as well as the threat of international terrorism.”

Some of the potential future uses of Japan’s forces, as mulled during the recent debates, could include providing security to foreign troops engaged in U.N. peacekeeping missions, carrying out minesweeping operations in the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz or other key sea lanes.

I expect that we will be asked to play many roles in the future,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said during a press conference late last week.

“We will strive to meet such expectations. We are considering minesweeping to be one of the important roles we will play,” he said.

The change, which Abe championed for years before his landslide election victory in 2012, comes after his LDP’s smaller coalition partner, New Komeito, reluctantly agreed to soften its opposition.

Many Japanese remains leery, however, judging from a large protest outside Abe’s office on Monday night, as well as recent opinion polls. One, conducted by the official Kyodo news agency in mid-June, found 55 percent of respondents opposed to the change, a rise from 48 percent the previous month.

In another, by the Mainichi Shimbun daily last week, 71 percent of respondents expressed fear that if the government allowed the exercise of the right to self-defense, Japan could be dragged into armed conflict.

Of note, even among those supportive of Abe’s move, 60 percent thought Japan could become involved in a war as a result.

Japan’s giant neighbor to the west is a concern to many. Forty-nine percent of respondents in the Mainichi poll voiced concern about the possibility of a conflict with China, while 39 percent said they did not think that would happen.

‘A gloomy shadow’

The world’s second- and third-biggest economies have a difficult history. Imperial Japan occupied parts of China between 1931 and 1945, during which time hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were killed.

During a Chinese presidential visit in 1998, Japan in a statement expressed “deep remorse” and said it was responsible “for inflicting grave suffering and damage” during the military occupation, but many Chinese believe Japan’s leaders are insufficiently contrite for the country’s aggression.

A long-simmering dispute between the two over resource-rich islands in the East China Sea came to the boil late last year, and remains a sensitive focal point in bilateral relations.

Reaction in China to the security changes has been predictably strong.

Earlier this year, the foreign ministry in Beijing said of the planned changes “Asian countries, including China, and the international community have every reason to be highly vigilant as to Japan’s true intentions and relevant moves.”

In a commentary Monday, the state news agency Xinhua took a less temperate line, accusing Abe of “a dangerous coup” and seeking to release “the shackles of the nation’s legally tethered military and war will from its war-renouncing constitution.”

“It is ironic that ‘rule of law’ and ‘democracy’ are seemingly pet phrases of the prime minister used for international discourse, but what the leader is doing is trampling on the country’s supreme law and abandoning Japan’s basic democratic fundamentals,” it charged.

The commentary concluded that Abe had “hijacked the nation on his way to combat and has cast a gloomy shadow over security in the Asia-Pacific region and the entire world.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow