Between fear and hope on Japan’s new defence policy

The Japanese lower house has approved bills to revise Japan’s security architecture, bringing longstanding debates about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposal on collective self-defence to a head.The security legislation has met widespread opposition within Japan. In June 2014, for example, a man self-immolated in Tokyo to protest Japan’s proposed collective self-defence policy. But, despite such strong opposition from members of the Japanese public, Abe has obtained the support of the lower house. He now only needs approval from the upper house to pass the bills into law.


The bills’ intention is to enable a wider interpretation of the constitutionality of self-defence as outlined in Article 9. The bills allow Japan to take action if its allies are under attack, provided that the attack threatens the ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’ of the Japanese public, there is no other means to prevent an attack, and the action taken is limited to the ‘minimum level necessary’. The bills would allow Japan to exercise the use of force in international disputes and international peace missions in cases that meet these three criteria. Abe’s assurance is that Japan will involve itself in military actions only when they are necessary to protect Japanese citizens.

There are several factors that strengthen Abe’s position in proposing the bills.The balance of regional power is shifting in the Asia Pacific. China’s growing power economically and militarily, as well as North Korea’s assertiveness, require Japan to respond to this changing security environment.

Since the mid-2000s, conflict has escalated between Japan and China. Territorial disputes in the East China Sea, China’s Air Defense Identification Zone and China’s aggressive action on land reclamation in the South China Sea have galvanised the acceptance of collective self-defence in Japan at the executive and legislative levels.

Abe has enjoyed support for the bills from his party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP eventually succeeded in lobbying Komeito, it junior coalition partner, to authorise the bills, as a response to perceived external threats to national peace and security in Japan.

Strong support from the US also bolsters Abe’s hand. Increasing Japan’s contribution to security burden sharing for the maintenance of order in the Asia Pacific is seen as crucial to US-Japan alliance solidarity. Ongoing support from the US for Japan to take a proactive role in the region is a boon to Abe’s confidence.

During Abe’s visit to the US in April 2015, he and President Barack Obama agreed upon new Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation, paving the way for Japan to take a larger role in responding to security challenges in the Asia Pacific.

But Japan’s new defence policy has generated mixed responses in the region. This might escalate conflict and undermine regional security and peace.

For Japan’s closest neighbours, particularly China and South Korea, this new defence policy brings back horrific memories of Japanese wartime atrocities. The implementation of collective self-defence could therefore undermine efforts toward reconciliation and stronger relationships between Japan and its neighbours. It could be perceived as an indication of rising Japanese nationalism and therefore a potential threat.

For other US allies in the region, like Australia, Japan’s new defence policy strengthens their hand in hedging against China’s unilateral changes to the status quo. Debate on the shifting nature of power in the Asia Pacific has heightened in Australia, especially after the rotation of 2500 US marines through Darwin starting in 2011.

The new developments in Japan might boost enthusiasm for the idea of Indo-Pacific security architecture that involves a ‘stronger’ Japan balancing China’s power in the region. The stagnation of the US rebalance to Asia has rekindled interest in a new security arrangement in the region. It would not be a surprise if Australia were to praise Japan for its decision to pass these bills.

ASEAN’s position on Japan’s security policy remains unclear. As the main regional institution, ASEAN has a responsibility to formulate an effective mechanism to ease tensions and protect regional stability. But ASEAN should first enhance the cohesion of its member nations, which has recently been weak, especially when dealing with the major powers. Cohesiveness is ASEAN’s primary means of retaining stability in the region. Without it, ASEAN will be easily divided by the big players, such as China, Japan, or the US.

Ultimately, the Japanese government has to work harder, not only to convince the public domestically, but also the regional community, that their new defence policy contributes to maintaining security and order. It is essential for Japan to remain open to dialogue and cooperate with its neighbours. This will help ensure that their new defence policy can produce the best possible future for the region, and help overcome fears of the past.

Source: East Asia Forum

This article was written by Wendy Prajuli, a lecture in International Relations BINUS University and Nur Alia Parawita from University of Bradford