Japan recently reinterpreted its constitution, effectively giving the country the green light to use its military in a broader range of scenarios. What are the consequences of this controversial move for Japan, Russia and East Asia?


Japan's Maritime Self-Defence Force Commander Hidetsugu Iwamasa in front of one of their P-3C Orion aircraft at RAAF Base Pearce near Perth, April 4, 2014. Photo: Reuters

Russia expects Japan to exercise restraint in military matters, said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich on July 7, noting that “we do not want to reach hasty conclusions regarding the Japanese government’s declaration on the right to collective self-defense.” This statement was made in response to a resolution passed by the Cabinet of Ministers of Japan on July 1.

The resolution aims to alter the interpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution concerning the right to collective self-defense, thereby giving Japan the right to use self-defense forces to protect allies in other countries and effectively allowing it to use military force abroad alongside other national militaries.

The change in the interpretation of the constitution generated a mixed response, both at home and abroad, which calls for a balanced assessment of the move and its implications for East Asia and Russia. The decision was taken on the 60th anniversary of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, the country’s unified military. It changed the interpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution of 1947, still in effect without amendment. Under Article 9, “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

Prior to this decision, the Japanese government was guided by the interpretation of the Constitution adopted in 1970, in accordance with which Japan had a right to self-defense only for the purpose of maintaining peace and security and to ensure the country’s survival, whereupon the measures should be kept to the minimum required level with no right to collective self-defense.

Besides changing the interpretation of the constitution, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed to amend the legislation expanding the use of Self-Defence Forces, including greater capacity to respond to conflicts and contingencies, such as landing on “remote islands.” It is worthwhile to note that finally a more limited reinterpretation was adopted due to a cautious approach by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party’s coalition partner – the New Komeito Party.

One of Prime Minister Abe’s central ideas in amending the constitution is to make Japan a “normal country” with an independent military capacity that would reinforce its ability to act as a global power and regional leader.

How and when might Japan use its self-defense forces?

During a press conference on the resolution, Abe noted that the government’s decision does not presuppose a fundamental change in the security policy pursued by Japan for the past 70 years, but rather represents a minor adjustment triggered by the significant changes seen recently in international and regional security.

Such changes, first and foremost, bear relation to two factors perceived as security threats to the country: the development of North Korea’s missile and nuclear program, and China’s increasing military capability and assertiveness, particularly in challenging Japan’s sovereignty over the disputed islands in the East China Sea.

It is the Chinese factor that is crucial, since China’s increased activity in the waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and China’s announcement  of  Air Defense Identification Zone in the area are seen by Japan as major security challenges. In such circumstances there is an urgent need for a more efficient cooperation with Japan’s key ally – the U.S. – as well as other regional partners, including among others Australia, Vietnam and the Philippines, with the latter two involved in territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea.

The Japanese Cabinet's decision allowing to exercise the right to collective self-defense sets three criteria under which action may be taken to assist a friendly country:

(1) there is a clear existential threat to Japan and if people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness could be fundamentally overturned;

(2) there is no other way  repelling an attack and protecting Japan and its citizens;

(3) the use of force is kept to the minimum required level.

For example, after the adoption of the relevant legislation, Japan can use self-defense forces to protect U.S. Navy ships in Japanese waters, as the Japan-U.S. alliance is considered a key pillar of Japan’s own security. In addition, Self-Defense Forces can be deployed to evacuate Japanese citizens fleeing a war zone, as well as to intercept and inspect vessels suspected of transporting weapons to third countries hostile to the U.S, if the war could potentially spill over into Japanese territory.

Self-defense may also be used to intercept ballistic missiles against U.S. targets passing through Japanese airspace, conduct minesweeping operations without formal cessation of conflict and protect UN peacekeepers abroad.

Pros and cons of Japan's right to self-defense

Critics stress that Cabinet’s decision, following the adoption of the relevant laws in the Japanese Diet, will allow the deployment of self-defense forces to protect Japan's allies in the event of a threat to the country even if the aggression is not directed against it. Thus Cabinet’s decision is seen by many as a major security shift in Japan’s postwar security policy. This in turn provokes accusations of Japan’s militarization by its critics, especially China and South Korea.

At the same time, collective self-defense is an “inalienable” right for UN Member States in accordance with Article 51 of the Charter, and Japan’s renouncement of it on the basis of the previous interpretation of the constitution was an act of voluntary self-restraint. From the perspective of international law, there are no obstacles to Japan's right to collective self-defense.

Most important, Cabinet’s decision assumes the right to exercise collective self-defense in accordance with Article 9 of the constitution only when Japan's own security is threatened. According to Prime Minister Abe’s statement, Japan will never take part in military operations such as the war in Iraq. Thus, the situations in which Japan could apply this right are bounded by the criterion that Japan itself must be under threat which sets strict conditions for use of force and a priori makes it very limited.

However, the decision on the extent to which a situation poses a threat to Japan’s national security — and therefore requires the use of self-defense — will, in all likelihood, be taken first by the government, and only then by the parliament. Critics fear that the interpretation of events as endangering Japan’s national security could be used by the government to justify the use of self-defense abroad.

Moreover, given the strengthening of the Japan-U.S. security alliance and Japan’s increasing need for U.S. security guarantees in the face of strained relations with China, it remains unclear how independent any Japanese decision would be to provide military aid for America were the latter to be drawn into a conflict that did not pose a direct military threat to Japan.

Furthermore, October 2013 saw the announcement of a revision of the Guidelines for Defense Cooperation between Japan and the U.S. by the end of 2014. It is no surprise that Cabinet’s move was fully backed by Washington. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the decision would allow the U.S. and Japan to participate in a wider range of operations and forge an even more effective alliance.

Abe’s Cabinet seeks to position Japan as a peaceful country, which policy should, in accordance with the new strategy of proactive contribution to peace, adopted in December 2013, increase its contribution to maintaining peace in both regional and international dimensions. At the same time, the quintessence of Abe’s new political course lies in the transformation of Japan into a “normal country” and the increase in domestic military potential, in part through higher defense spending.


Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews the honour guard before a meeting with Japan Self-Defense Force's senior members at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo September 12, 2013. Photo; Reuters

A different picture emerges from the reaction of countries in the region that suffered Japanese aggression during World War II. The Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately criticized the Japanese government’s new foreign policy, since it poses, in their eyes, a threat to the whole of Asia. In a statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei urged Japan not to violate China’s sovereignty and to follow a path of peaceful development.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, speaking at events marking the 77th anniversary of the outbreak of war with Japan, made ​​a series of pointed statements about respect for history, and condemned those who “ignore inconvenient historical facts,” a clear reference to the rhetoric issuing forth from Japan’s present cabinet and Prime Minister Abe himself.

South Korea expressed its concern over Japan’s resolution, stating that "any issues that affect the security of the Korean peninsula and national benefit in regard to Japan's practice of right of collective self-defense cannot be approved without our request and agreement”.

ASEAN countries, particularly those involved in territorial disputes with China, namely Vietnam and the Philippines, seemed to embrace the changes with no expression of public criticism whatsoever along with Taiwan, while another Japan’s ally, Australia, backed the move.

Japan has one of the most modern and well-equipped armies in the world, and its Maritime Self-Defense Forces are the most powerful in Asia. In terms of defense spending, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) ranks Japan  fifth in the world (after the U.S., China, Russia and Britain).

What’s of outmost importance, Japan, along with the U.S., supports the status quo in East Asia. Japan’s right to collective self-defense raises the stakes in the event of a regional confrontation. In particular, an armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula or over Taiwan would involve Japan. That would greatly increase the risks for the warring parties, and hence, makes such conflicts less likely. Japan’s involvement in regional contingencies will definitely make the costs of challenging regional order more explicit. This reflects the policy of Abe’s Cabinet to contribute to deterrence stability in the region.

However, the fears of Japan’s neighbors could mean that, instead of having the desired deterrent effect, the changes may actually aggravate the security dilemma and increase the likelihood of a regional political or military confrontation that draws in Japan. At the same time, the need to find an adequate and frictionless response to the challenge of China’s rise significantly determines Japan’s ability to act as a regional leader.

Russia's response to Japan's plans

For Russia, which needs regional stability to implement its development projects in Siberia and the Far East, these considerations are of particular importance. Above all, the Kremlin’s greatest concern Japan’s active integration into region-wide ballistic missile defence networks centered on the U.S. Moscow opposes America’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) deployment in Europe with the help of NATO and is concerned about the same scenario in Asia-Pacific.

Cooperation with China, Japan, both Koreas, and the ASEAN countries, particularly Vietnam, is becoming increasingly important in the context of Russia’s Asian pivot. In particular, relations between Russia and Japan have great potential for development, especially economically and in the energy sector.

At the end of the day, successful regional development — in which Japan is committed to playing a leading role — is critical to maintaining stability and ​​security in East Asia. In this regard, Russia has consistently advocated the creation of a new security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region, representing not just another bloc of countries, but a single indivisible system, acting not only for the U.S. and its allies, but for all countries in the region.