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Making Progress on Collective Self-Defense



A little more than two years after the Abe Cabinet’s decision to allow Japan the exercise of collective defense in limited specific cases the Cabinet Legislative Bureau [CLB] has published a booklet changing its view on what Article 9 allows or prohibits.

By Hitoshi Ashida’s changing the American authored words of Article 9 which outlawed the use of force for any purpose including self-defense, the legal door was left open for Japan to engage in self-defense.  Many Japanese and foreign critics fail to realize that the Ashida version of Article 9 which passed the Diet and went into effect as part of the Constitution  in 1947 prohibited the use of armed force only in order to settle international disputes, i.e., offensive force.  In 1959 Japan’s Supreme Court decreed that self-defense is indeed legal and in 1972 stated that the amount of self-defense is a political rather than a legal determination.

But also in 1972 the Sato Cabinet accepted a statement of policy by the CLB declaring correctly that Japan as a sovereign nation has the right of collective self-dense but stating that collective self-defense cannot be exercised.  The government had the right to decide politically not to exercise collective self-dense; however, it was not legally prohibited from doing so.

The issue of the legality of defense forces was controversial in 1954 when the Self-Defense Force Law passed; thus Japanese Government distinguished “self-defense force” as distinct from “military force” and set as its goal/limit the accumulation of the “minimum necessary amount” of self-defense force.  This was a pragmatic political decision even though it was below any legal limit.

The important issue which was not discussed was that the level of self-defense capability from the 1950s throughout the Cold War was not adequate [i.e. not the “minimum necessary”] for Japan to defend itself.  Japanese national security depended on its treaty relationship with the United States which agreed in 1960 to regard an attack on Japanese territory as dangerous to its own peace and security and to join with Japan to meet the common danger.  I believe Prime Minister Abe fully understands the past inadequate level of Japan’s own efforts.

Japan’s level of self-defense capability increased significantly from the 1980s.  But, even in this post-Cold War era, it remains inadequate as the minimum necessary by Japan, given the dual threats of North Korea, which appears to have a certain level of nuclear and conventional missile capability, and particularly because of the increases in the advanced weapons, statements and actions of China in the East and South China Seas.

The absolute threat situation less may not yet be a great as during Cold War, but no one expected Japan to deter the Soviet Union by Japan’s own efforts.  But now the threat to Japan is increasing and many Japanese feel America’s relative power in the Pacific is not as credible as in the past.  Thus the Abe Administration stepped up in 2014 to modify the CLB position of 1972.

Some Japanese think President-elect Trump will “demand” Japan to increase its host nation support for US Forces in Japan. I have no connection to the Trump team; however, I think they will be impressed how much host nation support Japan is already bearing. But Mr. Trump wants to increase American defense capability which has been allowed to weaken to dangerous levels while Chinese power grows. As Mr. Nakasone did with President Reagan in 1982, I think Mr. Trump will push for Mr. Abe to join him in increasing Japan’s defense efforts to strengthen mutual deterrence in the Asia Pacific area.

The new CLB booklet admits that the 2014 Abe Cabinet decision and the new security laws which implement it change the opinion of 1972.  The booklet justifies the change stating that, in specific and dire circumstances in today’s security environment, the use of collective self-defense triggered by an armed attack against another country is an unavoidable and necessary measure to defend Japan, not to protect another country.

Although the 2014 change might be considered risky by some, is it not prudent to politically consider additional legal measures before Japan is locked out of the South China Sea or North Korea becomes an established nuclear weapons state?  Together, the U.S. Seventh Fleet and Japan’s Self-Defense Fleet are superior to China’s Navy which can best be deterred if Beijing believes the US and Japan will act together to maintain peace throughout the Pacific.   I believe the Abe Cabinet’s goal of authorizing realistic levels of legal collective self-defense makes good common sense for Japan’s national security interest. If these Japanese efforts are accelerated Japan – U.S. defense relations are likely to grow even stronger.

James E. Auer is emeritus professor at Vanderbilt University where he directs the Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation


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