North Korea’s nuclear ambitions trigger debate over Japan’s constitution

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions trigger debate over Japan’s constitution
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After the recent North Korean missile test, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has once again called for a discussion concerning the revision of the peace clause of the Constitution that has forbidden Japan from relying on a standing army since the end of the WWII.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently called for the revision of the Peace Constitution due to the emerging level of threat originated by Pyongyang and its nuclear ambitions. The recent missile test launched by Pyongyang has spurred again the internal debate over Japan’s security posture and its ability to efficiently respond to the new global challenges.

Japan’s political landscape

In the last few years, the Liberal Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Abe has achieved important results in regards of the shaping of a new image of Japan as a proactive player able to redefine the level of its engagement in an increasingly more confrontational security environment.

In 2014, after a long and intense debate with its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito, traditionally reluctant to embrace audacious change in the security legislation, Abe administration managed to secure the approval of the reinterpretation of the Japan’s constitution. This has been done by imposing a new clause that allows Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defence.

Under this new vision, SDF are now lawfully able to fight alongside allies’ troops or shooting down missiles targeting allied force. This also increases the level of integration with American forces. However, many parts of the civil society, including notable intellectuals, have strongly criticised government’s interpretation of the collective defence clause as an attempt to undermine Japan’s decision to avoid military interventions to solve international disputes. Yet, LDP leadership remains adamant in aligning the security agenda on Washington’s priorities in preventing any risky shift in the regional power balance.

The debate concerning the reinterpretation or the amending of the Constitution has been on the LDP’s agenda since the Gulf War in 1991. The changes determined by the new global scenario pushed Japanese leaders to take into consideration a new approach aiming to ensure that Japan could respond effectively to the rise of new challenges.

In the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, Japan was criticised for its limited contribution to the international community and often considered as a free rider. This fostered a domestic debate focusing on the importance of promoting a new image of Japan’s foreign policy. In 1998, under Obuchi Administration, Japan launched the Human Security framework, aiming to redefine Japan’s role in the global scenario and foster further discussion about the future of Japan as a global and responsible power.

Abe’s realpolitik

The recent North Korean missile crisis has offered a valuable opportunity for Abe’s cabinet to highlight the importance for Japan to address to the emerging regional threats represented, for instance, by Pyongyang nuclear programme. I

n order to achieve this goal, once again Prime Minister Abe has called for an amendment to the Article IX of the Constitution during a recent debate at the Diet, confident to gain additional support for this summer Upper House election. While the composition of the current Lower House is expected to experience substantial changes till 2018, the Upper House elections will be an important test for Abe Administration in regards to the new security policy that has characterised Abe doctrine.

Besides, the support from its collation partner, the New Komeito, Abe has recently welcomed the help of the Osaka Ishin no Kai willing to support Abe’s desire to revise the Constitution Pacifist’s clause. Presently, the LDP-Komeito collation can count on the two-thirds majority in the Lower House and the simple majority in the Upper House with 134 seats on 161 required to hold a referendum on the disputed peace clause.

A stronger coalition and wider vote-bank, would enable Abe to finally secure a two-third majority in the Upper House. The result of a national referendum on such a controversial issue could ultimately crush Abe’s long-awaited opportunity. The Japanese Constitution, promulgated during the American occupation of Japan, has remained unaltered for 70 years and strongly reflects the legacy of the American security architecture imposed by Washington that affected Japan’s modern political and economic architecture.

In July 2014, Abe Cabinet inaugurated a security bill, aiming to revise the Japan’s constitutional interpretation of the Article IX, expanding the role and the engagement of the SDF.

During his last mandate, Prime Minister Abe launched a series of reforms, aiming to redesign Japan’s security orientation such as the creation of the National Security Council (NSC), the drafting of a new National Security Strategy, outlining Japan’s international and regional strategic posture till 2024, coupled with a robust military expansion that has led to the approval of a $42bn defence budget in 2015. Additionally, the lift of the ban on arms exportation and sale based on the Three Principles on Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology is expected to revitalise the Japan Defence industry, eager to establish profitable partnerships with neighbouring countries concerned about rising expansion of China in the region, such as in the South China Sea scenario.

Due to the marked shift in the regional balance of power, on April 2015, Japan has revised the guidelines for the 1997’s US-Japan Defence Cooperation, deepening the level of strategic preparedness and increasing the level of military interoperability, based on the creation of a standing Alliance Coordination Mechanism (ACM).

Despite, Beijing’s protest over Abe administration’s desire to foster a progressive militarisation of the Japan, the new security bill foresees three main conditions that would allow the use of military forces.

Under these new caveats, the SDF would rely on military forces when an armed attack against Japan or those countries with a strong partnership with Japan are directly threatened; when there are no other means available to repel an attack against Japan or its people, and the usage of force should be limited to the minimum. While Japan could technically exercise the right of collective self-defence, the usage of force would be limited in a scenario where its serious threats against its territory and its citizens occur.

Abe’s administration security reforms is a part of a long process initiated by Japan’s founding fathers such as Yoshida Shigeru and Takeo Fukuda that envisioned a gradual restoration of Japan as a valuable contributor to international peace and order after the turmoil of the WWII.

Yet, the contemporary discourse over Japan’s recalibration of its strategic assets and protection of its core interest continues to originate a polarised response from public opinion, civil society and the international community. Nowadays there is an emerging consensus about the rising threats and challenges that the Japanese political elites are confronting makes the revision of the Peace Constitution useful. However, the reform could ultimately fail due to the inability of the Japanese society to quickly adjust to the transformations imposed by the global security scenario.

As Japan becomes more entangled in the commitments and responsibilities to fulfil its emerging role in the international arena, the finalisation of the “normal nation” process remains the last phase of an unavoidable journey through uncharted waters.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito is a London-based analyst. He is also a GRI analyst and regular contributor for the Foreign Policy Association, where he writes mostly on the Koreas ‘blog. He holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, Japanese politics and Chinese foreign policy. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito.