After decades of fierce attachment to its peaceful constitution, Japan—under the most conservative and popular Prime Minister in years—is poised to make a sweeping change to its defense policy. This morning, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared that Japan should be able to participate in “collective self-defense”—overseas military operations undertaken in defense of Japan’s allies, even when the country itself is not threatened:
“It is necessary to deepen cooperation with other countries so that we can seamlessly … cope with any situation to protect our peaceful lives,” Abe said, according to the Reuters news agency, adding that Japan’s peaceful posture would not change.
Japan has long forbidden collective self-defense, and this change would entail nothing less than a reinterpretation of the constitution. For years, overseas actions by Japan’s “military” (called Self-Defense Forces) were limited to peacekeeping operations and disaster relief. As the FT reports,
Conservatives such as Mr Abe have for years chaffed against the legal consensus that Japan can deploy fighting forces only if attacked – something that has not happened since Tokyo renounced violence as a means of settling international disputes after the second world war.
Abe has been slowly but surely moving the country away from its traditionally pacifist outlook. This year’s defense budget was increased for the first time in over a decade. The increase included more resources for the coast guard, surveillance equipment, and a marine rapid-deployment force capable of reaching Japan’s far-flung islands quickly. Abe also lifted restrictions on the export of military equipment. That change allows Japan’s defense companies, long suffering from a lack of competition and unable to join high-profile cooperate development projects, to enter new markets abroad. It will also help satisfy one of Abe’s strategic goals—to beef up the military capabilities of countries that, like Japan, are engaged in territorial disputes with China. Japanese companies have already reached out to countries like India, Australia, the Philippines, and Vietnam with offers to sell coast guard ships, submarines, seaplanes, and other goodies.Changing the interpretation of the constitution—which stipulates that Japan “forever renounce[s] war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes”—would be another step in the Abe revolution. “This is a line of constitutional interpretation that we have not crossed in 60 years,” the chief of Abe’s party’s general council wrote this month, according to the FT. “The Self-Defence Forces would become an army. In armies, people kill and are killed.”Watch out, China.