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Japan's security policy shift: 'A blow to ties with East Asia'

PM Shinzo Abe's Cabinet has endorsed plans to allow Japan's military to help defend other nations. Jeremy Yellen talks to DW about the implications of one of the biggest changes in Japan's security policy since WWII.

Despite widespread public anger and a protester's suicide bid, Japan's Cabinet approved on Tuesday, July 1, a proposal calling for the right to "collective self-defense," or aiding a friendly country under attack. The proposal, which still needs to be approved by parliament, would also allow the country's military to play a larger international role by loosing restrictions on activities in UN-led peacekeeping operations and "grey zone" incidents - low intensity conflicts that fall short of a full-scale attack.

Japan currently maintains a military only for its own defense, and has previously interpreted the pacifist Article 9 of its post-World War II constitution as meaning it cannot engage in what is known as collective self-defense. If approved, the change could allow the Asian nation to come to the defense of the US or other countries, even if Japan itself is not under attack. In a DW interview, Harvard University historian Jeremy A. Yellen says the move is an important gesture toward the United States, but it will very likely deal a further blow to Japan's relations with both neighboring China and South Korea.

If the proposal were to get through parliament, how important would this step be?

This would be both a very symbolic and important development for Japan's security policy, and the Japanese press has thus taken to calling it a "great change." It is important, however, not to take the recent developments out of their proper historical context. Certainly the pace of Japan's sea change in security affairs has picked up under the current Abe administration. But the roots of this change reach back two decades, to the end of the Cold War.

How have the different Japanese administrations interpreted Article 9?

Throughout the Cold War, Japan practiced an economics-first strategy - the Yoshida Doctrine, named after Yoshida Shigeru who served as prime minister in 1946-47 and 1948-1954. The doctrine prioritized economic rehabilitation while relying on the protective shield of US power.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a lower house special committee on a state secrets act at the parliament in Tokyo November 26, 2013.

PM Abe's reinterpretation of the constitution should be read as the latest of a string of attacks on Article 9, says Yellen

Yoshida and his successors interpreted Article 9 in a way that bound Japan from a broader security role. In the process they imposed a number of restraints on participation in security affairs, from refusing to deploy Japanese troops overseas to avoiding participation in collective defense arrangements, limiting military spending and power projection capabilities, and refusing to export arms or share defense technologies.

So Article 9 was "interpreted" in a way that legitimated each of these restraints. This strategy allowed Japan to sidestep the psychological costs of full rearmament while allowing the country to take economic advantage of the bipolar Cold War world. And it was immensely popular, owing to widely shared ideals of pacifism.

The end of the Cold War, however, threw this strategy into disarray. Meeting the needs of security in the new era has required undoing much of the restraints that Japan has imposed on itself. From the early 1990s, Japanese Self-Defese Forces were deployed overseas to Cambodia and later to other areas. And, more recently, Abe has created new principles for arms exports and has signed an agreement with Turkey to develop weapons jointly. All of these moves would not have been allowed under the interpretation of Article 9 that held sway during the Cold War.

In effect, the interpretation of Article 9 - the peace clause of the Japanese constitution - has been weakened numerous times since the end of the Cold War. So although Abe's reinterpretation of the constitution to allow for collective self-defense is indeed important, it should be read as the latest of a string of attacks on Article 9.

This latest step is also symbolically an important gesture toward the United States. The US-Japan alliance, after all, is the lynchpin of both countries' security strategies for the Asia-Pacific. And the US has complained for decades about Japan's unwillingness to take a broader security role. I believe that the political value of showing a readiness to work with Washington may be much more important to Abe than the military value of exercising collective self-defense.

How does Abe justify the reinterpretation of Article 9?

Abe has consistently justified his reinterpretation of Article 9 in two ways. First, he has placed his reinterpretation in the context of Japan's alliance with the United States. Abe argues that allowing the exercise of collective self-defense would allow its forces to protect US vessels and help sweep mines in the Persian Gulf. The Abe government privately fears that if Japan does not show a broader willingness to fight for the United States, then Washington might abandon its commitment to defend the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, leaving Japan at the mercy of China in the East China Sea.

Second, Abe has justified the reinterpretation of Article 9 by pointing to China's maritime advance abroad. He has referred to the clashes in the South China Sea between China and Vietnam and the Philippines as evidence of China's aggressive intent. Abe has hinted that collective self-defense could be extended to such nations as South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and India, if threats from China or other aggressive states bring matters to a head. And this would all be in the name of "active pacifism."

According to Abe's new interpretation, under what circumstances would Japan be able to deploy its military forces?

This is unclear. According to the Cabinet decision, Japan would be able to deploy its military forces if three conditions are met: (1) if an ally or friendly nation is attacked; (2) if that attack presents a clear threat to the existence of Japan; and (3) if it threatens to undermine the rights of the people to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. But who decides whether an attack on a friendly nation represents a "clear threat" to Japan? This, like Article 9 itself, is open to interpretation. Abe has promised "limits" to involvement in overseas operations, but those "limits" remain ill defined. Some fear that thiswill give conservative nationalists a blank check to invoke the right of collective self-defense under the guise of security.

Legal revisions needed to implement the change must still be approved by parliament, which could impose further restrictions in the process. Is the reinterpretation likely to be adopted by parliament?

It is highly likely that the National Diet will sign off on the reinterpretation of Article 9. Abe has done an excellent job of taming the liberal members of his own Liberal Democratic Party by dangling the carrot of future Cabinet appointments - and he plans a Cabinet reshuffle in September.

A Japan Self-Defence Forces soldier stands near units of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles at the Defence Ministry in Tokyo April 10, 2013. Japan has deployed ground-based PAC-3 interceptors, as well as Aegis radar-equipped destroyers carrying Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors in response to North Korea's threats and actions, according to its government. REUTERS/Issei Kato (JAPAN - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)

Tokyo has promised "limits" to involvement in overseas operations, but those "limits" remain ill defined, says Yellen

New Kōmeitō is on board as well, owing to fears among the party leadership that continued resistance might impel the LDP to abandon New Kōmeitō as its coalition partner. The ruling coalition alone has a comfortable majority in both houses of the National Diet, and they will find further support for collective self-defense in officials from Your Party and the now-defunct Japan Restoration Party.

Abe's plans have been heavily criticized even within his own ruling coalition. What are the PM's opponents so concerned about?

An interesting and underreported fact - in English-language media - is the extent to which Abe's own party initially criticized him. As recently as mid-March, former LDP Secretary-General Koga Makoto called Abe's plan's "the thinking of a foolish, spoilt child." Liberals in the LDP's Kishida faction no doubt felt the same way. But as the Asahi Shimbun newpaper noted in late May, it is highly likely that Abe tamed his own party by applying pressure over personnel choices in its upcoming Cabinet reshuffle.

New Kōmeitō - the LDP’s coalition partner - has led the vanguard of resistance. They have argued that reinterpreting the constitution is frivolous and unnecessary, as Japan's security can be guaranteed through the right of individual self-defense. Moreover, New Kōmeitō’s willingness to expand Japan's security role has always been hampered by the party's peace principles and by its own pacifist power base - the Nichiren Buddhist lay organization Sōka Gakkai. And party members feared that support for collective self-defense could harm New Kōmeitō’ in the upcoming nationwide local elections next spring. But the party has folded on the issue, no doubt owing to Yamaguchi Natsuo and the party leadership's fears of being kicked out of the coalition government with the LDP.

How are neighboring countries likely to react to this move?

This decision will deal a further blow to Japan's relations in East Asia. Both China and South Korea are involved in bitter territorial disputes with Japan, disputes that have only been exacerbated by Abe's overt nationalism, his recent visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, and his tendency to downplay or disregard the horrors of Japan's imperial past.

Protesters holding placards shout slogans at a rally against Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to expand Japan's military role in front of Abe's official residence in Tokyo June 30, 2014.

Yellen: "This is a highly unpopular move with the Japanese people. Public support for Article 9 remains quite strong"

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has thus continually communicated its wariness about Tokyo making any changes in Japan's defense policy. And the broader public in both China and South Korea remains staunchly opposed to any reinterpretation of Article 9. In the short-term, South Korean President Park Geun-hye will likely use it as yet another justification for her country's chilly relations with Japan. And China will likely use this move as an occasion to blame Tokyo for escalating regional tensions.

On the other hand, the United States will welcome Japan's decision. Washington, after all, has for decades pressed Tokyo to take a more equal role in the alliance. And it is also likely to be welcomed by the Philippines and Vietnam, both which are engaged in territorial disputes or standoffs with China.

How are the Japanese people likely to react to the Cabinet decision?

This is a highly unpopular move with the Japanese people. Public support for Article 9 remains quite strong. According to a recent poll conducted by the Nihon Keizai Shinbun, 50 percent of respondents oppose the exercise of collective self-defense, far outstripping the 34 percent who support it. Moreover, only 29 percent of respondents approve of the move to reinterpret the constitution (instead of revising it outright), whereas 54 percent opposed such a move.

Jeremy A. Yellen is a historian of modern Japan and an associate in research at Harvard University.