Japan is continuing to formulate a new legal framework that will govern the country’s security policy. Last summer, the Cabinet led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a new interpretation of the country’s famed “peace clause” enshrined in Article 9 of the Constitution, which bars the country from maintaining armed forces that could be used to wage war or to settle international disputes by use of force. The new interpretation, with a few important details still being debated by the country’s two ruling coalition parties, will expand the definition of “self-defense,” and allow for new roles and missions for the country’s Self-Defense Forces. But the ongoing discussion, while further along more quickly than many had anticipated, remains contentious on a number of fronts, as the dominant Liberal Democrats (LDP), especially Prime Minister Abe, favor a much more robust military for the country, while the coaltion’s junior partner, Komeito, is more in tune with the more liberal leanings of the general public, which is wary of the country wandering far from the core principle of Article 9. Today we continue with the latest in a series of interviews discussing the ongoing evolution of Japan’s security policy.
Tatsumi: ‘Japan is becoming serious
about defense responsibilites’
Yuki Tatsumi is a specialist in Japanese security policy, and US-Japan relations, at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC. She joined Stimson’s East Asia program in 2004 as a research fellow, and was appointed a senior fellow in 2008. Before joining Stimson, Ms. Tatsumi worked as a research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and as the special assistant for political affairs at the Embassy of Japan in Washington. Among her numerous writings is Japan's New Defense Establishment: Institutions, Capabilities and Implications. A native of Tokyo, Ms. Tatsumi holds a B.A. in liberal arts from the International Christian University, Tokyo, and an M.A. in international economics and Asian studies from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
DISPATCH JAPAN: After the recent hostage crisis, and the murder of Kenji Goto, approval ratings for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went up, but support for diplomacy over any kind of military response has remained strong. Any surprise there?
TATSUMI: No surprise. On the one hand, the Japanese public is realistic that Japan playing a bigger role internationally does come with some risk, and it is important that Japan stand for certain principles. Abe said that Japan would not cave in to terrorist pressures. He refused to pay a ransom. The public supported Abe for taking a firm stance.
At the same time, by and large, the public remains very cautious about using the Self-Defense Forces abroad, including for hostage rescue operations.
DISPATCH JAPAN: We saw a rash of stories in the Western media arguing or implying that the hostage crisis had brought Japan to a “tipping point,” with the country perhaps on the verge of turning against Article 9 of the Constitution. Do you believe there is any foundation for that kind of analysis?
TATSUMI: No. The hostage crisis has not brought Japan to a “tipping point,” in either direction. Japan is not going to accelerate, or be propelled, in a direction toward much greater involvement of the SDF abroad. Similarly, the crisis is not going to drag Japan back to the point of perhaps 10 years ago, when we tended to avoid any sense of responsibility for international security. Back then, policies like collective self-defense were far removed from serious official consideration, but now they are not.
The crisis will likely induce public demand for greater transparency and accountability from the government about how prospective changes to the country’s security legislation will actually affect SDF deployments. Prime Minister Abe has explained what he hopes to change in a broad policy sense. But even he has not clearly articulated to the public how the likely proposed legislative changes will translate concretely into what the SDF can, or cannot, do. The LDP and Komeito, as the ruling coalition parties, seem close to finishing their debate, and with their strong majority in the Diet, they should be able to get new legislation past, as well as changes to existing laws.
But there is a problem. Neither the general public, nor many people considered well-informed, have been able to digest and internalize the real implications of the legislative changes the government is on the verge of implementing.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The Democratic Party (DPJ) and others have tried to argue that the prime minister may have unnecessarily gone too far in his January speech in Cairo, when he strongly aligned Japan with anti-ISIL efforts, knowing that ISIL was holding two Japanese hostages. Polls show the public does not blame Abe personally for the hostage murders. But does the criticism of his Cairo speech resonate at all with the public?
TATSUMI: I was a bit disappointed by some of the DPJ commentary. After having run the government for 3 years, some in the DPJ’s current leadership still seem too naïve in thinking that one speech in Cairo would trigger such a crisis. The DPJ completely overlooked preceding incidents, starting from last autumn, when American and British journalists were executed in a very public manner. Seen in this broader context, it is clear that ISIL was happy to exploit and manipulate anything available. It just happened to be Abe’s speech.
So the criticisms by some in the DPJ that blamed Abe’s Cairo speech were short-sighted. Such reaction probably backfired because the public was disappointed with the DPJ’s reaction, further dragging down the public’s confidence in the party that had been already pretty low.
It is clear from the Cairo speech that Abe was offering humanitarian assistance to people affected by the violence in the region. I don’t think the public buys the argument that the speech somehow provoked the crisis, or that Abe delivered the speech and played-up the speech with too much fanfare. The speech was really just an extension of what Japan has been doing in the Middle East for many years, assisting the Palestinians and others in the region at the grassroots level.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Do you see much support for cultivating in Japan the capability for a military response to a hostage crisis, such as a hostage rescue force?
TATSUMI: I don’t see anything like that. A hostage rescue capability is highly-specialized, requiring other combined capabilities, such as intelligence gathering and evaluation, which Japan does not currently have. And even with modestly increasing defense budgets, there won’t be the resources available to develop that kind of overall capability.
DISPATCH JAPAN: So what will be the practical policy fallout in Japan from the hostage crisis, with respect to either diplomacy or defense?
TATSUMI: I see two scenarios. One: the crisis could be a catalyst to raise greater awareness among the Japanese public that the country really needs greater intelligence and other relevant capacities to deal with various security crises, including responding to hostage situations. That would require detailed study of the resources that would be required, and how the resources would be pulled together. There has been some talk, for example, of creating a Japanese version of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). There could be increased support for the notion – though perhaps not yet proactive pursuit – of those types of greater security capabilities. The idea would be that in these uncertain times, Japan as an independent nation needs to invest more in these areas.
The other scenario is for Japanese to say that the hostage crisis, and the growing uncertainty of the times, is precisely why Japan needs to be very careful about any kind of talk of dispatching the SDF overseas. In this scenario, the public would side with even greater caution, and intensify defensive measures such as early closure of embassies at signs of trouble, and attempts at stricter enforcement of travel warnings.
It is too early to tell how this will play out.
We will get a good indication from the upcoming Diet debates over security legislation.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What do you think will be the main points of contention surrounding the security legislation?
TATSUMI: The Cabinet last July endorsed the exercise of collective self-defense in a limited way. Generally speaking, the debates will revolve around how to define “limited.” And the debate will not be so much between Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition DPJ. The debate will be inside the ruling coalition, between the LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito. What kinds of SDF deployments will Komeito be comfortable with?
Some people mistakenly believe that with the coalition's two-thirds majority in the Lower House, the LDP can simply run over the Komeito. But the coalition does not work that way. Many LDP members of the Diet are dependent on Komeito’s electoral support for their seats in the Diet. There is a point at which the Komeito can and will weigh-in on the collective self-defense issue. Komeito already stretched itself very far in first supporting Abe to pass the Secrecy Law in December 2013, and then supporting the Cabinet decision of last July about collective self-defense. Abe and his team are going to have to spend a lot of time, trying to reach out to the Komeito leadership even further, if they hope to get what they apparently want.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Where will Komeito and the LDP likely disagree the most?
TATSUMI: Right now the main sticking point seems to be that the LDP wants broad latitude for the SDF to act in what are called “gray zones,” which would require changes to specific laws authorizing new types of SDF operations.
Generally speaking, gray zones are areas of potential belligerence that had yet to take the form of a state-organized attack on Japan by another nation with military force. There are not precise definitions of gray zones, or what would trigger authorized SDF actions, and what those actions would be.
It seems pretty clear that the government mostly has in mind a scenario involving increased tensions around the Senkaku Islands and the East China Sea. Realistically, the escalation from relative peace, to a gray zone of growing hostility, and then to a real, live contingency, would likely occur quite rapidly.
The LDP and Komeito are likely to struggle to define SDF operations that would be allowable to deter a potential adversary from escalating a gray zone contingency, while making sure to not authorize excessive use of force by the SDF that would inadvertently escalate the hostilities. What kinds of SDF operations would make China think twice before escalating, while stopping short of full-scale SDF operations? And, how would this be managed in real time?
Keep in mind that it is not only the Chinese who would be watching Japan in these gray zone scenarios. The US, as Japan’s security ally, would have a great interest as well, which raises very complicated questions about how much information exchange, contingency planning, and coordinated operations between US and Japanese forces would be authorized under the new policy of limited exercising of the right of collective self-defense.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What about mine-sweeping operations in the Persian Gulf, which the prime minister clearly states he wants authorized? Komeito is still reluctant.
TATSUMI: When I first heard about mine-sweeping, I thought the prime minister had in mind the type of mine-sweeping that Japan engaged in after the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. All the fighting had stopped, but the mines still had to be cleared. But apparently, this is a different case.
This is a very important question, because this goes to the heart of the matter of what kind of situation allows Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense in a “limited” manner. The case like this is still triggering strong negative reaction from the opponents of the Prime Minister’s policy because to them, this would be a classic example of the government trying to expand the scope of SDF activities to areas that are distant from Japan’s vicinity.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How does the security legislation debate overlap the US-Japan rewriting of bilateral defense guidelines?
TATSUMI: It all adds up to a lot for the alliance to absorb. In the beginning, I felt that Washington was reluctant to take up revisions to the guidelines, because American officials were not sure if Japan was really willing to take on bigger roles and responsibilities. Japan initiated the process, out of concern that the existing guidelines were not reflective of China’s rising capabilities and activities. But the US was not going to enter the talks just to make Tokyo happy. Washington took time to gauge the level of seriousness in Japan. There has to be something in this for the US, something more than the US assuring Japan of backing in the event of a conflict surrounding the Senkakus.
The US eventually became convinced that Japan was serious about pursuing legislative changes allowing for a broader scope and range of SDF operations, including limited exercising of the right of collective self-defense. Of course, the escalation of Chinese activities not only in the East China Sea but also in the South China Sea motivated Washington as well.
The revision of the guidelines was supposed to have been wrapped up by the end of last year. But Japan suggested a delay until after the envisioned legislative changes are enacted, so that the revised guidelines can incorporate the expanded legal scope of SDF activities.
So much depends on the final legislative details. The US could wind up either pleasantly surprised, or disappointed.
Keep in mind that the Japanese government’s position on the new guidelines also has to be coordinated with Komeito. They have made progress, but disagreements remain.
DISPATCH JAPAN: My sense is that the US, more than anything else, wants an integrated flow of battlefield information between the US and Japan, mostly involving North Korea. That means everything from missiles, to planes, to naval vessels, especially submarines that could pose a threat to US aircraft carriers and other battle ships.
TATSUMI: From the US perspective, the real end-game for a long time has been a combined operational command, which would break down the walls between US and Japanese forces by legally supplanting the existing interpretation of self-defense. But a combined command is now pretty far-fetched, so the fallback is integration in specific scenarios, such as missile defense. In the case of gray zones, such as a scenario around the Senkakus Islands, Japan cannot realistically expect the US to fully commit if Japan has to go through an enormously complex series of legal procedures for operational authorization every step of the way.
The US does not expect Japan’s SDF to be involved in front-line combat in war in distant places. But the US does think it should be able to expect Japan to provide the full range of rear area logistical support, and information flows, without getting bogged down in separate legal authorizations.
Ideally, this is where a combined command would come into play. But since that ideal is not even on the horizon, a more realistic idea is for a range of parallel US-Japan joint task forces suited to likely scenarios, including ballistic missile defense.
In the wake of the 3-11 triple disaster, the US and Japan established three bilateral coordination action teams (BCAT)—one in Ichigaya, one in Yokota, and one in Sendai—to work together on nuclear issues and humanitarian relief. This might offer the most realistic model for future planning and operational coordination between the two militaries.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Prime Minister Abe has been invited to speak to a joint session of Congress later this month. Given the tensions with South Korea, but the improving defense ties with the US,what are the "pros" and “cons” of the invitation?
TATSUMI: If Abe can deliver a speech to a joint session of the US Congress with the consent of the White House, the biggest “pro” will be that it symbolizes the reconciliation between Japan and the United States. It sends a clear message that the US government, both the executive and legislative branches, is supportive of Abe and his agenda, both in economic and security policy. On the other side, it could remind many of the recent fallout between Speaker Boehner and the White House over Speaker Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu. Abe will want to make sure that Boehner's invitation is extended to him with the consent of the White House. The current US administration has been frustrated with some of Prime Minister Abe’s “advisors,” who openly talk about how the US-Japan relationship would be in a better place had it been the Republications in charge of the White House. Mr. Abe has accepted the invitation from Mr. Boehner, but I think he would be smart to not want to aggravate such frustration by accepting an invitation from a Republican Speaker of the House extended without the consent of the White House.