The Abe administration, in a Cabinet decision made on Tuesday — the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Self-Defense Forces — changed the government’s longstanding interpretation of the Constitution so that Japan can exercise the right to collective self-defense. The decision not only effectively undermines the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 — which has prevented Japan from being involved in international military conflicts in the postwar period — but also violates the principles of rule of law under the Constitution.The Japan Times editorial makes it clear that it opposes this course of action, although most of its criticisms are procedural. Abe has fully earned his reputation as a Japanese nationalist, which is contributing to the heavy criticism he is receiving for this action.
The Cabinet decision, pending related changes to relevant laws, paves the way for the SDF to use force overseas to defend Japan’s allies even if Japan itself is not under attack. In other words, it allows Japan to take part in conflicts abroad, potentially putting SDF members in harm’s way.
The Abe administration’s new interpretation of the Constitution also does not rule out Japan’s participation in United Nations-led collective security operations, which are mainly aimed at punishing countries that breach international peace — a concept different from self-defense. This contradicts what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated at a news conference following Tuesday’s Cabinet decision: “Japan will never take part in fighting such as has taken place in the Gulf War or the Iraq War.” Abandoning the traditional “defense-only defense” position, the administration’s move marks a clear departure from the postwar Japan’s basic defense posture.
But it's hard to see this as anything but inevitable given the recent behavior of China. Even while this measure was under consideration, China harassed Japanese coast guard vessels near the disputed Senkaku Islands. That is not the behavior of someone who wants peace except on his own terms. To be imposed violently if necessary.
While some will claim it heightens tensions in the region, it actually is in response to tensions already heightened by China. China has been playing a game of seeing its neighbors already divided, so it acts against them one by one. Japan is just about the only one of those neighbors capable of defending itself at sea (especially) and in the air. The Philippines, victims of Chinese aggression in the Spratlys and the Scarboroughs, are too weak, which is why they reached a deal with the US to base forces there once again. Vietnam, who fought a border clash with China in 1979 spurred on by Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge, has shown it is more than able to defend itself on land, but not at sea, which is one reason there has been talk of the US moving in there as well. The US already has relationships with Singapore (especially), Indonesia and Malaysia.
The problem is that, like most of our allies, these countries doubt the commitment of Barack Obama to defend them. In Japan's case it is especially critical, since the US is required to defend it as a result of its post-war constitution, Japan does not want its hands tied by an Obama-led US unwilling to honor its commitment to defend it. That is another major reason behind this move.
It is hard to overstate the depth of distrust for Japan in East Asia after its barbaric acts in the Pacific War, but Japan is an old enemy. China is rapidly making itself into a new enemy. And for countries too weak to defend themselves at sea and understandably mistrustful of Obama and his Smart Diplomacy™, Abe's act here gives East Asia another option for collective defense.