Japan avoiding reality in security debate

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With Japan’s House of Representatives passing a legislative package that is critical for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s national security agenda, the bills now go to the House of Councillors for consideration and a vote. There is little doubt that the bills will be enacted by the end of the current Diet session on Sept. 27. However, the deliberative process on the bills so far has left a critical issue — just how much Japan is willing to share the risk with other countries to maintain the existing international order — almost totally undiscussed.

The proposed legislative package is the biggest attempt to modernize the legal framework on which Japan’s national security policy is based. The two basic questions that the proposed legislation posed for the political leaders are whether the existing legal framework suffices for Japan to protect itself in the rapidly changing security environment, and if not, how much change in the legal framework is necessary?

Despite being called “war legislation” by critics and some media, what the Abe government has proposed in the security legislation is a very modest step toward modernizing the legal framework that authorizes activities by the Self-Defense Forces in various situations. Simply put, the proposed legislation aims to (1) provide operational flexibility for the SDF in “gray zone” situations to better control crises, (2) allow the SDF to participate in coalition operations in areas beyond Japan’s vicinity when certain conditions are met, (3) clarify what the SDF is allowed to do when it conducts operations that are interpreted as “limited exercises of the right of collective self-defense” and (4) bring the rules of engagement for SDF participation in U.N.-led peacekeeping operations closer to international standards. Given the emergence of security challenges that were unthinkable when the existing legal framework to authorize various SDF activities was established after World War II, these proposed changes are a bare minimum and long overdue if Japan wants to remain a relevant player in the international community.

As such, the legislation could have served as an excellent starting point from which Japanese elected officials could discuss their different ideas for the future course of Japan’s national security policy. The proposed legislation, to its proponents and opponents alike, provides an opportunity to consider how the recent trends in security threats — cybersecurity, the emergence of non-state actors to pose security challenges and so on — may have made the existing legal framework (including the interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution) woefully outdated, handicapping Japan’s ability to effectively respond to the security challenges of today and tomorrow. In short, this was an opportunity for Japanese elected officials to engage in the dialogue that is long overdue for Japan — thoughtful discourse on the future of Japan’s national security policy that is rooted in reality rather than in ideology, to reach a minimum consensus on Japan’s role in the world.

However, the discourse in the Diet that has unfolded to date stopped well short of answering these fundamental questions. When the Diet engaged in the debates on the proposed dispatch of the SDF in the past–such as after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001–the debate almost solely focused on the legal aspects of the legislation proposed by the government to authorize these dispatches. This time, the discourse in the Diet so far has been mostly repeating itself from these past two debates.

The opponents of the legislation, rather than presenting a credible alternative vision for Japan’s security policy whereby Japan can remain a responsible member of the international community without changing the existing legal framework, chose to label the bills as “war legislation” and resorted to simplistic arguments such as “these new laws will make it possible for the SDF to go to the other side of the world and engage in a war,” stirring fear and anxiety among the public. Supporters of the legislation did no better when they countered the criticism by attempting point-by-point rebuttals. In addition, some overzealous junior LDP members clearly crossed a line by insinuating intimidation against the media along the way, creating a further distraction.

What is potentially more disturbing is the prospect that the reluctance of political leaders to discuss these issues may be a reflection of the unwillingness of the Japanese public to face the reality of today’s international security environment. In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, all nations share an interest in maintaining certain international norms and principles such as freedom of navigation and rejection of coercion as a means to settle international disagreements. In order to maintain an international order that upholds these principles, the countries that agree with these principles must share the risks that are associated with defending them. However, the discourse on the security legislation suggests that Japan still may not fully appreciate this reality, still living in the bubble of “one country pacifism.”

The United States obviously has a great deal of interest in seeing whether the security legislation plays out. After all, it was in 2000 when the first Armitage-Nye report explicitly referred to Japan’s self-imposed prohibition on exercising the right of collective self-defense as “a constraint on alliance cooperation.” More recently, Sheila Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations described the proposed legislation as aimed at clarifying “the legal basis for three types of military operations” and suggested that “none of the contingencies publicly presented here involved scenarios that Japan has not confronted to date.” James Schoff, a former senior adviser to the Department of Defense on Asia policy, recommended in his congressional testimony on July 16 that Washington should “(s)upport Japan’s reinterpretation of exercising collective self-defense rights,” and “be supportive of other steps Japan might take to normalize its military … so that Japan is better able to protect its own territory.” In other words, there seems to be a general agreement among those who are involved in U.S.-Japan alliance management that the current direction taken by the Abe government, including the proposed legislation, is positive.

At the same time, however, many in Washington are concerned about the way the Abe government essentially steamrolled the opposition to pass the bill in the Lower House. As Sheila Smith puts it, “a deeply divided Japanese public over alliance cooperation is not the outcome U.S. policymakers hoped for.” As the security legislation moves to the upper house for further debate before it gets voted on, Japanese political leaders get one more chance to demonstrate that they are capable of having a serious debate toward creating some level of consensus about the future course of Japan’s national security policy. They should not miss this opportunity.

This article originally appeared in The Japan News on July 25, 2015. 

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