Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appealed to the public to support his bid to strip away some of the constitutional restrictions on Japan’s armed forces, sparking criticism from China.
The push to reinterpret Japan’s pacifist constitution, allowing troops to defend allies and use weapons more freely, comes as Abe seeks to tighten ties with the U.S. amid rising concerns over China’s assertiveness in the region. He faces resistance from his Buddhist-backed coalition partner, New Komeito, and from some members of his own Liberal Democratic Party.
“As the prime minister, I have responsibility for protecting the Japanese people’s lives under all circumstances,” Abe said at a news conference in Tokyo yesterday. “I cannot believe that the Japanese constitution is telling me to abandon that responsibility.”
Abe is seeking approval for collective self defense at a time when Chinese and Japanese ships are regularly confronting each other over disputed islands in the East China Sea and North Korea increasingly threatens neighbors with nuclear attack. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Tokyo last month backed the change, which risks straining ties with China and South Korea that are already affected by territorial spats and lingering resentment over Japan’s militaristic past.
Other countries in the region, except for China and South Korea, understand Abe’s decision and the government will explain its new position through diplomatic channels, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said today in Tokyo.
“We have seen since the Abe administration took power, a series of unprecedented measures in the military field,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing in Beijing yesterday. “Asia-Pacific countries including China and the international community have sufficient reason to maintain high alert on Japan’s intentions and future path.”
South Korea, which also has a territorial dispute with Japan over an uninhabited island, also expressed concern about Japan’s decision.
“With regard to the Japanese government’s defense and security discussions from now on, it shall be made clear again that matters that affect our national interest and security on the Korean peninsula will never be accepted without our request or approval,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said last night in an e-mailed statement.
Abe said the proposed changes were aimed at strengthening deterrence and thus avoiding any conflict. An advisory panel to Abe earlier submitted a report saying the government could change the interpretation of the pacifist constitution and that no amendment was needed to allow defense of allies.
Abe said the cabinet would make a decision on policy after the ruling parties had reached agreement. The government will then prepare legislation for parliamentary approval, with no time line so far set for this.
Japan has so far interpreted its U.S.-drafted constitution as banning so-called collective self-defense because it exceeds the requirement to keep the use of force to a minimum, according to a previous report by Abe’s advisory panel. Faced with high barriers to his longer-term goal of revising the constitution, Abe is seeking to strengthen Japan’s military stance by other means.
Seiko Noda, chairwoman of the LDP’s general council, said in a magazine interview published this month that overhauling security policy without changing the constitution could lead to flip flopping by subsequent administrations. The LDP should instead stick to its policy of reworking the constitution, she told Sekai magazine.
Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said in a press conference on May 13 that he didn’t think the public wanted the government to expend energy on an issue not included in the pledges made when the coalition government was formed. Reinterpreting the constitution was not mentioned in the deal signed by Yamaguchi and Abe in December 2012, which prioritized the economy and recovery from the 2011 earthquake.
Surveys have shown widely varying support for Abe’s plans even with the growing tensions with China over the East China Sea islands. A poll published by the Yomiuri newspaper on May 12 found 63 percent of respondents approved of collective self-defense if it is kept to a minimum. Eight percent said it should be allowed without restrictions, while 25 percent said there should be no change to current policy.
A similar poll by Kyodo News on Jan. 25-26 found 54 percent against the change. The Yomiuri polled 1,080 people by phone between May 9-11 and didn’t give a margin of error.
Abe convened the same panel, composed largely of academics, during his first administration and in 2008 it proposed allowing Japan to act in four specific situations. These were defined as defending U.S. Naval vessels at sea; trying to intercept ballistic missiles that might be headed to the U.S.; using weapons more freely in international peacekeeping operations; and providing logistical support for other countries involved in peacekeeping operations.
This time, the panel also recommended allowing Japan to inspect ships in the event of an emergency in the vicinity of Japan; to support the U.S. if it comes under attack; and to clear mines in seas important to Japanese shipping.
“If the government announces a new interpretation, it is possible to decide to allow the exercise of collective self-defense, along with individual self defense, as long as it is kept to the minimum necessary,” the panel said in its report. “It is incorrect to say that a change in the constitution is needed.”
The panel also made recommendations on strengthening the response to so-called “gray zone” situations that fall short of an attack. These include foreign submarines refusing to leave Japanese waters and cases where the Japan Coast Guard is unable to deal swiftly with illegal activities around remote islands.