On 19 September, Japan’s upper house passed a set of bills that allow the country to deploy its military overseas and play a much more prominent strategic role in peacekeeping and collective self-defence. Viewed from afar, the changes may seem modest and incremental. But for Japan, the move represents a significant shift in post-war defence policy away from the limited use of force and pacifist sentiment expressed in the Constitution to a more expansive interpretation in line with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of Japan’s ‘proactive contribution to peace’.
The bills include a number of important policy changes (PDF). The most significant is undoubtedly the use of collective self-defence, which allows Japan to deploy its military in support of the armed forces of the US and other countries in situations that have an ‘important influence on Japan’s peace and security’. Up until the passage of the 11 security bills, use of force was only permitted in the event of a direct armed attack against Japan. The government now considers the following three conditions when reaching a decision: that the attack against Japan or another country threatens Japan’s survival, that there are no other appropriate means available, and that the corresponding use of force is limited to the minimum extent necessary. Exercising this right will still require prior approval by the Diet, Japan’s legislature.
The scope of support activities Japan can provide to other countries will also increase. The Self-Defence Forces (SDF) will now be able to provide greater supplies and services to other countries’ armed forces. Logistical support, such as refuelling and transport activities, will help improve operational coordination with the US and others. Less controversially, the bill also enables greater participation in multilateral peace and security operations both within and outside of UN peacekeeping operations. In UN missions, for instance, Japan’s SDF will be better placed to protect civilians and other countries’ armed forces.
The main stated objectives of the legislation are to secure Japan’s peace and integrity and contribute to international peace and stability. While the former is necessary and the latter laudable, questions remain over interpretation and implementation. Japan’s security environment has undoubtedly worsened in recent years with China’s growing military assertiveness in the East China Sea, increased tensions over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and continued uncertainty on the Korean peninsula. Clarifying Japan’s response to so-called ‘grey zone’ incidents, which infringe upon Japanese territory but stop short of a military attack, has become vitally important to defending the Senkaku Islands. Providing logistical support to the US or South Korea in the event of conflict with North Korea would similarly be in line with Japan’s national interests.
But other examples frequently cited by the government, such as participating in minesweeping operations in the Strait of Hormuz in the event of a maritime blockade, seem vague and far removed from Japan’s immediate strategic priorities. Concerns that Japan will inadvertently be swept up in US military activities in the Middle East are proving hard to dispel. Abe has in fact ruled out that possibility but has failed to persuade a large segment of the Japanese public, who continue to question whether the country’s leaders will be capable of saying ‘no’ to Washington.
More concerning, Abe used up considerable political capital and most of the parliamentary session pushing the bills through the Diet, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at times seemingly more concerned with passing the bills despite the cost. For a government that was elected to improve Japan’s economy, this hasn’t played well with voters. A recent opinion poll by Nikkei Shimbun found the cabinet’s approval rating had dropped 6 points to 40% with the disapproval rate rising to 47%. While the policy itself isn’t particularly popular (with 31% in favour, 54% disapproving), it’s quite striking that as many as 78% of respondents said the government had failed to adequately explain the changes. As Daniel Sneider aptly described, ‘Abe has rediscovered the limits on power imposed by the reality of democracy in Japan’. With an upper house election looming next year, the government will need to work hard to regain the public’s support. Fortunately for Abe, the major opposition parties have also experienced a comparable drop in party support as they struggle to capitalise on the shift in the public mood.
For Australia, the policy changes should be seen as a positive development that allows for a much closer strategic relationship. An enhanced security role for Japan arguably opens up more opportunities for bilateral and multilateral cooperation with countries like Australia, India and South Korea. Improving operational coordination, strengthening the US–Japan alliance, and clarifying Japan’s contingency planning for ‘grey zone’ incidents should also remove some of the gaps in regional security. Greater clarity in policy will help avoid strategic miscalculations. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop reaffirmed the importance of enhanced security cooperation with Japan in a media release on the passing of the security bills, stating that the ‘reforms will make it easier for us to work with Japan overseas on peacekeeping operations, and humanitarian and disaster relief.’
Whether the changes can facilitate a more conciliatory relationship between Japan and China, or at least reduce the level of strategic mistrust, may be the more important concern for Australia over the long term. Encouraging a ‘responsible Japanese strategic role’ while avoiding entanglement in Sino–Japanese rivalry will be crucial as Japan’s new security policy becomes a reality.