On July 16, Japan’s House of Representatives (Lower House) voted in favour of legislation that will expand the role of the country’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and allow it to operate beyond Japanese borders in support of allies. The House of Councillors (Upper House) now has until late September to debate and vote on the legislation, but barring an unexpected reversal, its adoption is all but certain.
As expected, the news attracted strong criticism from China, despite recent overtures in both Beijing and Tokyo to thaw the icy relationship. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson declared that it could lead to “significant changes in Japan’s military and security policies” and added that it was “fully justified to ask if Japan [would] give up its exclusively defense-oriented policy.” China Daily took it one step further, lamenting that by “fatally slashing Japan’s seven decades of pacifism [Prime Minister Shinzo Abe] realized his dream of abandoning postwar order and switching his country back into war mode.”
The legislative package represents the culmination of two years of efforts by Abe to overhaul Japan’s security policy. Under the umbrella of a vaguely defined “proactive contribution to peace,” the Japanese Prime Minister made it a personal political objective to redefine Japan’s role in regional security and loosen the constitutional restraints on the SDF, despite significant opposition from the Japanese population. Spurring the legislative change has been the perception, shared by many Japanese on both ends of the political spectrum, that the security environment surrounding Japan has become increasingly severe. To explain the growing insecurity, the Japanese Prime Minister and his Liberal Democrat Party have pointed the finger at an increasingly powerful and assertive China, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, as well as non-traditional security threats such as terrorism. The 2015 Japanese defense white paper, approved in mid-July by the cabinet, explicitly describes China as a threat.
Given these threats, the Japanese Prime Minister argues that by loosening the restraints on the SDF and allowing them to “proactively contribute to peace,” the legislative changes will directly improve Japan’s security. However, for all the fuss surrounding the bills and their purported major consequences, scant attention has been paid to their likely concrete impact on regional security and stability. In essence, the legislative package provides for an expanded role for the country’s SDF. Once enacted, the bills will allow the exercise of the right of collective self-defence, enabling the SDF to come to the aid of an allied nation — most likely the United States — even if Japan is not itself under attack, in cases where the situation is deemed to pose an imminent threat to Japan. For instance, following the enactment of the security bills, the SDF could assist the United States if an American ship came under attack and or if a missile was headed for US territory.
In reality, the legislative changes will have a much more limited impact on regional peace and security than is generally acknowledged. Despite looser restraints on the SDF, Tokyo will remain far less proactive and willing to contribute to military operations than most other American partners, as Robert Dujarric has recently argued. There is no political and popular will to see Japan suddenly develop an interventionist streak, and anti-militarism remains a defining feature of Japanese society and politics, which the new security bills cannot suddenly overturn.
The regional contingencies that Prime Minister Abe said would warrant a Japanese intervention are unlikely to occur. While not outside the realm of possibilities, the likelihood of North Korea or China taking a direct military action against the United States and thereby posing a threat to Japan remains unequivocally low. For all its bombastic rhetoric and occasional military provocations, North Korea has been remarkably adept for more than six decades at getting what it wanted without crossing the proverbial red line. The North Korean regime is above all concerned with its own survival, which would be greatly imperiled in the case of any attack on the United States. As for China, despite the more confrontational tone of recent Sino-American relations, both Washington and Beijing remain acutely aware of the need to cooperate and of the grave consequences any military conflict between the two would incur. While the rhetoric has at times been acrimonious, especially regarding the South China Sea, both sides have shown restraint in their bilateral interactions.
The new legislation does reinforce the US–Japan alliance, as Washington has long called for Japan to shoulder a greater share of the regional security burden. But on a direct, day-to-day level, it does little to enhance Japan’s capacity to address the security challenges that are said to justify the changes. The SDF will not become better equipped to respond forcefully to Chinese incursions in what Tokyo considers its territorial waters, and neither will they suddenly become more active in the East and South China Seas. In other words, some of the main sources of Sino-Japanese animosity and regional insecurity will not be affected by the changes to Japan’s policy.
If the effects on Japan’s security and regional stability are null or minimal, why has Prime Minister Abe put all his political weight behind the new security bills? The Japanese leader has long expressed the desire to see Japan shed the victim mentality that has weighed on the national psyche since World War II. He wants Japan to become a “normal” country, unbound by a constitution that was imposed by United States in an instance of what he sees as “victor’s justice.”
Japan has been a peaceful global citizen for the past 70 years and should be able to make a greater contribution to international security, for example through involvement in UN peacekeeping missions. The problem is that the Japanese Prime Minister is promising something — greater security for Japan — that the legislative package cannot directly deliver. And by going against popular will and the opinion of most constitutional experts in Japan, he has made the road ahead harder for his party. However, the momentous change that many have warned of will not occur.