Will Japan renounce its pacifist constitution?

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe / Photo Wikipedia

By Richard Snow

At the end of World War 2, America wrote the new Japanese constitution.  Article 9 of the constitution pledged Japan to forever renounce war and the use of force to settle international disputes. As a result, Japan’s self-defence forces were developed with a purely defensive role in mind. They could protect Japan against an invasion, but had no ability to project force at a distance, or join other forces in multi-country manoeuvres or exercises.

Japan has been slowly expanding its role and redefining ‘pacifism’.

In the first Gulf war in 1991, when Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, an international coalition invaded to overthrow Saddam. Japan was unable to participate in that, and so wrote a check to make a financial contribution to the war effort.  It received a great deal of criticism for this.

In 1992, they therefore passed a law to allow troops to serve overseas, although not in combat roles.  After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Japan allowed its ships to perform logistic, transport, re-fuelling and escort roles near the gulf region to assist US and other allied forces. In 2004, Japanese forces were sent to Iraq, predominantly doing engineering work, and had to be defended by coalition partners if they came under fire. After the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, its forces delivered humanitarian aid in Indonesia. In 2005, Japan passed the “International Peace Cooperation Law” which allows Japanese forces to contribute to peacekeeping missions.

In 2014, Japan reinterpreted Article 9 so that Japan can respond in force if an ally is attacked. This would allow Japan to respond if (say) the US were attacked by China.

In recent years, Chinas been building artificial islands in the South China Sea, and placing airstrips, anti-aircraft batteries, and surface to ship missiles on them. Japan also faces a threat from North Korea, which has been firing missiles over Japan to the Pacific Ocean.

What has Japan done in response?

Japan has slowly built up its so-called self-defence forces. Its navy now includes  26 destroyers, 10 frigates, and 18 submarines. It has reallocated forces from the north east of the country to the south west, closer to the South China Sea. However, Japan’s maritime defence area is bigger than Western Europe plus the Mediterranean. If Japan were to defend this area, it would need a much bigger naval force than it currently possesses. Japan has also joined India and the US in naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal last year and this year. It has  purchased modern fighter planes, acquired airborne re-fuelling abilities, and launched spy satellites.

China’s reaction

Because of Japan’s history of aggression before and during World War 2, China is particularly sensitive to any move to military expansion by Japan. If Japan moves to strengthen naval cooperation with other nations such as Vietnam and India to balance the rise of China, this may provoke a hostile reaction from China. In the past, there have been anti-Japanese demonstrations in China. Prime Minister Abe has won the October 2017 election with a massive majority. Abe’s ruling Democratic Party of Japan now has a two thirds majority in each house of parliamment, which is needed to put a referendum to the Japanese people to amend or remove Article 9 of the constitution. They want an amendment in place by 2020 so that japan can respond to threats as a ‘normal’ country would.

Such a move would be incredibly divisive within Japan. Expect to see a lot of demonstrators, police and maybe blood on the streets if Abe goes ahead with a referendum.

~ ~ Richard Snow is a former economist studying a Master’s in International Relations at La Trobe University.

Article on Japan’s recent election results here.

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