The Abe Government’s Security Bills: Time for a Responsible Debate
May 7, 2015
With voices in Japan and neighboring countries expressing concern over the Abe cabinet’s plans to legislate a more flexible defense policy, Senior Fellow Tsuneo Watanabe calls on the nation’s politicians and government officials to reassure the public of Japan’s commitment to peace by conducting Diet deliberations in a transparent, measured, and constructive manner.
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In November 2013, the Tokyo Foundation’s National Security Project published a policy proposal titled “ Maritime Security and the Right of Self-Defense in Peacetime .” The proposal consisted of a set of legislative and administrative recommendations for updating Japanese security policy in response to a changing security environment, including the potential for “gray zone” situations during peacetime. In the revised National Defense Program Guidelines and the National Security Strategy released the following month, the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled the outlines of a national security policy consistent with our recommendations.
With negotiations between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito scheduled to wind up by the end of April 2015, the government is finally ready to submit security legislation for Diet deliberation beginning in May. We believe the substance of the bills, which closely mirrors our recommendations, represents an important step forward, not only for Japan’s national security but also for the stability of the surrounding region.
Nonetheless, from the public reaction, it appears that many people in Japan and overseas regard the impending changes with misgivings. In the years since World War II, Japanese society has adhered to the spirit of Article 9 of the postwar Constitution, which renounces war as a means of settling international disputes. Against the background of the July 2014 cabinet decision affirming Japan’s right to participate in collective self-defense, the Japanese public seems to view the Abe cabinet’s legislative initiative as portending a major shift in Japan’s basic security posture. This perception—no doubt exacerbated by the difficulty of conveying the larger security picture in terms lay people can easily grasp—has given rise to a significant backlash in Japan and abroad.
A Long Overdue Update
What is the government’s basic rationale behind its security bills, and what importance do they have for Japan at this juncture in history?
The bills’ supporters point out that the time has come to rewrite the laws governing Japanese security policy, given the need for Japan to adapt to the dramatic changes in the security environment. The current legal framework was developed to address the security challenges of the Cold War era—from the 1950s through the 1980s. We need to acknowledge the fact that this framework is obsolete in today’s international security environment. Indeed, given the magnitude of the changes that have occurred in the past 25 years, the government’s initiative has not come a moment too soon.
This is not to suggest that that there have been no modifications to Japan’s security statutes over the past quarter century. But the legislation introduced during that time has been limited and tightly circumscribed in nature. In 1999, for example, after North Korea launched a Taepodong missile over Japan without prior warning, the Diet passed the Law Concerning Measures to Ensure the Peace and Security of Japan in Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan. This legislation opened the door for the Self-Defense Forces to respond not only to direct attacks on Japan but also to situations in surrounding areas that, if left unaddressed, would pose a direct security threat to Japan. But even under the new law, the scope of action was limited to logistic support for US forces and circumscribed by the constitutional interpretation prohibiting Japanese participation in collective defense operations.
By allowing limited participation in collective self-defense, the Abe government’s bills would pave the way for more seamless and effective cooperation with US and other forces in the event of a contingency in the region around Japan. This is particularly urgent given North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons and missiles and the deep uncertainty surrounding the Kim Jong-un regime. In the 16 years since the Diet deliberated the Law on Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan, North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests and six tests of ballistic missiles (in addition to its three previous missile tests).
Responding to Terrorism
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the Diet passed the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law permitting Japanese forces to provide support for multinational operations fighting terrorism overseas. Under this statute, the Maritime Self-Defense Force was able to carry out refueling operations in the Indian Ocean to support multinational forces in Afghanistan. But since the provisions of this law expired after two years, new legislation would have to be drafted, submitted, and passed in the event of another such situation.
In the meantime, the threat of international terrorism has escalated, claiming the lives of two Japanese hostages earlier this year. Yet there is very little Japan can do to meet that threat. Instead of responding to each crisis that occurs with an ad hoc “special measures law,” the government seeks permanent legislation that would allow Japan to play a more active role supporting anti-terrorist operations and participating in the kinds of UN peacekeeping operations needed to maintain civil order and prevent countries from becoming hotbeds of terrorism.
Another important development in Japan’s security environment is the situation around the Senkaku Islands, where threatening incursions by China Coast Guard boats and Chinese fishing vessels have become commonplace. A major concern here is Japan’s ability to respond seamlessly to armed incidents that fall short of a full-scale attack on the country. Current law allows Japan to respond with force if under systematic attack by a foreign state but offers no framework for dealing with so-called gray-zone incidents, such as an attempted landing by armed, non-uniformed forces. This is not an issue of collective self-defense, and it requires no reinterpretation of the Constitution. Nonetheless, the laws have yet to be amended to reflect the new reality of Japan’s security environment.
No Change in Japan’s Commitment to Peace
Concerns about the Abe cabinet’s legislative initiative within Japan are understandable. Japan has managed to maintain its security under existing laws and the previous interpretation of the Constitution. Might not an overhaul of the laws governing national defense have the effect of escalating tensions in the region? The crucial point here is that the new legislation in no way alters Japan’s commitment to an “exclusively defensive defense” in keeping with Article 9. The Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner, was particularly insistent on this point. Japan is subject to tighter legal constraints on the use of force than any other country in the world, and it will remain so after enactment of the new legislation. People should be more concerned that current inadequacies in the laws governing territorial defense will create an all-too-tempting target for hostile states or terrorist organizations, creating the conditions for conflict that could have been avoided.
Another major problem with the status quo is Japan’s inability to provide timely and effective support for security operations authorized by the international community. The government of Japan needs to reassure the world that in rectifying this situation, it is simply doing what is natural for any responsible sovereign state, and that the changes it seeks do not alter its determination to restrict the use of military force to defensive purposes, in accordance with the spirit of Article 9.
To reassure the public in Japan and our neighbors, the government needs to make Diet deliberations of the legislation as thorough and transparent as possible, using the legislative process to help the Japanese people and the international community understand the bills and why they are necessary. This means steering away from the kind of sterile ideological debate, divorced from practical reality, that has marred Diet deliberation of security issues too often in the past. Wild accusations of militarism from the opposition have the potential to create serious misunderstandings abroad—as, indeed, do the lack of persuasive arguments from cabinet members and leading party officials.
In addition to ensuring the transparency of the legislative process, the government should use diplomacy and public communication to impress on our neighbors Japan’s enduring commitment to peace, making the most of such opportunities as the prime minister’s planned statement commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. But what we need most of all is a responsible and constructive Diet discussion to demonstrate to people at home and abroad that the government’s defense bills are designed for no other purpose than to contribute to the security and stability of Japan and the East Asian region.
(Adapted and translated from “Kokkai de no anpo hosei rongi e no kitai,” distributed by Kyodo News on March 9, 2015.)