On July 1, a prime-minister-appointed security advisory panel determined that Japan has the right to collective self-defense, a right guaranteed to all nations under the U.N. charter but previously not exercised under Japan’s pacifist constitution. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to implement collective self-defense will strengthen the U.S.–Japan alliance, but he faces strong opposition domestically and among regional neighbors.
The panel concluded that the previous overly restrictive constitutional interpretation was dangerous at a time of escalating regional security threats. A less restrictive interpretation of collective self-defense will allow Japanese forces to defend other nations, including the U.S., if they were to come under enemy fire.
The Abe administration still requires approval by the national legislature as well as changes to existing legislation before Japan can exercise collective self-defense. However, any new legislation concerning Japan’s security engagements will be based on the principles of using force only as much as necessary, only when the threat may affect Japan’s own national security, and only if all other diplomatic efforts prove useless.
While the U.S. has long advocated for Japan—a security treaty ally—to become more involved in its own defense and addressing international security threats, many Japanese remain worried that Abe will resurrect pre–World War II Japanese militarism.
There have been concerns within Japan that reinterpretation may lead to sending forces to war-torn areas the U.S. may be involved in, ultimately getting Japan involved in the U.S.’s strategic engagements abroad. But Abe has noted that Japan will continue as a rule-of-law, peace-loving nation.
The same week Abe’s cabinet cleared permitting the reinterpretation, approval ratings for Abe took a 5 percent dive. President Park Geun-hye of South Korea and President Xi Jinping of China have both expressed their concerns about Japan exercising collective self-defense.
Although there are clear security threats in Pacific Asia, Japan’s reinterpretation of its constitution is not one of them. However, South Korean polls have shown that Koreans are worried more about a hypothetical threat of Japan than about the real threat coming from North Korea. As the U.S. fails to deliver on the hype of the Asia Pivot and China increases its military procurement, it is prudent for Japan to become more responsible for its own self-defense and a greater contributor to the alliance.
While Abe should continually address the concerns of the region brought on by Tokyo’s wartime past, the U.S. should more openly praise Japan for its reinterpretation and also reassure the region of Japan’s peace-loving stance.