Japan changes constitution to allow military to fight abroad for first time since 1945
July 2, 2014 - 1:41AM
Around 10,000 demonstrators gathered in front of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s residence in protest. Photo: Reuters
Tokyo: Japan has taken a historic step away from its post-war pacifism by ending a ban that has kept the military from fighting abroad since 1945, a victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but a move that has riled China and worries many Japanese voters.
The decision by Mr Abe’s cabinet, which had long been expected, changes a more than six-decade-old reading of the constitution, which had strictly limited Japan’s forces to acting solely in its own defence. The new interpretation, known as “collective self-defence,” will allow Japan to use its large and technologically advanced military in ways that would have been unthinkable for this long-pacifist nation just a few years ago, such as coming to the aid of an American ship under fire, or shooting down a ballistic missile aimed at the United States.
The hawkish Mr Abe had sought even broader leeway for his nation’s military, but was forced to compromise after resistance from both within his governing Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, a small Buddhist Party. In a sign of how potentially divisive the change could be among voters, some 10,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the prime minister’s residence the previous evening to hold a noisy protest against the change. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: “This is not going to change Japan into a country that wages wars.” Photo: Reuters
Still, most Japanese seemed to at least tentatively accept the change, a sign, analysts said, of the growing anxiety here over China’s rising military might, and its increasingly forceful claims to disputed islands now controlled by Japan. They said these fears of China had made the public more willing to accept the more assertive security stance espoused by Mr Abe, who has long called for Japan to shed its postwar passivity and become a “normal” nation.
The new policy has angered an increasingly assertive China, whose ties with Japan have frayed due to a maritime row, mistrust and the legacy of Japan's past military aggression.
"China opposes the Japanese fabricating the China threat to promote its domestic political agenda," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference in Beijing.
"We demand that Japan respect the reasonable security concerns of its Asian neighbours and prudently handle the relevant matter."
The new policy cannot go into effect until at least this autumn as Parliament must still clear legal barriers to broader military action by revising more than a dozen existing laws, experts and lawmakers said. However, with Mr Abe’s governing coalition enjoying a comfortable majority in both houses, the change seems all but certain to become reality.
Still, even under the new policy, the Japanese military, called the Self-Defence Forces, will face strict limits that will allow it to act only when there is a “clear danger” to Japan or its people, and to use only “the minimum level of force necessary,” according to the text of the cabinet decision.
In a speech broadcast live on national television, Mr Abe sought to allay opponents’ concerns by stating the new policy would not lead Japan down a slippery slope by dragging it into distant, American-led wars. But he also said the new policy would forge closer ties with the United States, which stations 50,000 military personnel in Japan under a Cold War-era security treaty that obligates it to come to Japan’s defence.
“This is not going to change Japan into a country that wages wars,” Mr Abe said. “The Self-Defence Forces will absolutely not go into combat in wars like the Gulf War and Iraq.”
Rather, he said the change was necessary for Japan to act more like a full-fledged ally of the United States, something Japan needs to start doing as it seeks a clearer show of American support in its territorial dispute with China.
“A strengthened Japan-United States alliance is a force of deterrence that contributes to the peace of Japan and this region,” Mr Abe said. He also said the change would allow Japan to participate more fully in United Nations peacekeeping operations, such as by allowing Japanese troops to come to the aid of other peacekeepers under attack.
American officials have supported the new policy, saying they welcome Japan’s shouldering more of the security burden in the Asia-Pacific region at a time when the United States faces new problems in the Middle East, and additional budget cuts at home.
However, the new policy has drawn mixed reactions in Asia. While the president of the Philippines said he supported Japan doing more to help offset China’s increasingly assertive claims in the region, China and South Korea have said a rearmed Japan raised bitter memories of Japan’s brutal early 20th century march through Asia.
A commentary by China’s state-run Xinhua news service warned that Mr Abe was “dallying with the spectre of war” by trying to remilitarise Japan.
While Mr Abe focused his comments on closer ties with the United States, Japan’s postwar protector, analysts said the new policy could also make it easier for Japan to seek new military alliances with other nations including the Philippines and Vietnam, which have similar territorial disputes with China.
Analysts also said the decision capped a series of security-related changes by the Abe government that had already gone a long way in freeing Japan to play a larger military role in the region. These included lifting a self-imposed ban on selling weapons abroad, starting Japan’s first military aid to foreign countries since the end of World War II and improving its ability to respond to a security crisis with the creation of a new National Security Council, modelled on the American one.
“With not just collective self-defence but everything else that Abe has done, Japan is experiencing a security renaissance,” said Andrew Oros, director of international studies at Washington College. “What is remarkable is not that things are changing, but that they are changing with so little fanfare. Japan is finally getting past old taboos to face new realities.”
The New York Times, Reuters