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USJI Voice Vol.8

Right to Collective Self-Defense and the U.S.-Japan Alliance
―How Will the Alliance Be Strengthened?―

July 06,2015
Keio University

On July 1, 2014, the Shinzo Abe administration made a Cabinet decision regarding national security legislation. This decision included authorization of the partial exercise of the right to collective self-defense. Collective self-defense has long been identified as an issue that is essential to strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance, and there are expectations that it will bring about a deeper alliance. At the same time, some segments of Japanese public opinion have been harshly critical of this move, seeing it as a reversal of Japan’s tradition of conventional pacifism. Here, I will discuss the reason why it was necessary to reexamine national security legislation while also looking back at history.

This Cabinet decision was agreed upon within the government and ruling parties based on a report that was submitted to Prime Minister Abe by the Advisory Panel on the Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security (abbreviated as “Advisory Panel on Security”) on May 15. I myself was involved in the creation of this report as a member of the Advisory Panel. Thus, from this perspective, I wish to review why this Cabinet decision became necessary now, and how the alliance will be strengthened based on it.

Changes in the right to collective self-defense and constitutional interpretation

Can the right to collective self-defense be exercised under the limitations of the Japanese constitution? The Cabinet Legislation Bureau’s judgments vis-à-vis this question have wavered. If Japan does not possess the right to collective self-defense, the U.S.-Japan alliance would no longer function. On the other hand, based on the limitations of Article 9 of the Constitution, it would be difficult for the Self-Defense Forces to fight together with U.S. military forces abroad.

In the opinion of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, the Japanese Constitution does not prohibit the exercise of the right to collective self-defense, but rather overseas deployment of the Self-Defense Forces. At the end of the 1950s, it was argued that if Japan is an ally of the United States, it would be necessary for the Self-Defense Forces to be deployed abroad to “maintain international peace and security in the Far East.” In response to this, Shuzo Hayashi, who was the Director-General of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, reasoned that “protecting foreign countries by going to foreign countries” is “not permitted in the Japanese Constitution”; however, he states that if “economic support” and the “lending of bases” are included in collective self-defense, “[he] does not believe that the Japanese Constitution denies such activities.” In other words, the point of view of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau from the end of the 1950s to the 1960s was one of partial acceptance of the exercise of collective self-defense, rather than its complete prohibition. What was stated as not being possible in the Constitution was overseas deployment of the Self-Defense Forces. Thus, “exercisable collective self-defense” and “non-exercisable collective self-defense” were considered separately.

This view started changing gradually from the mid-1960s in accordance with changes in the global environment, namely the situations in Vietnam and the Korean Peninsula. As the U.S. started making a full-fledged military intervention into Vietnam in the mid-1960s, an intense antiwar movement developed in Japan. Also, due to the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea in 1965, there were broadening concerns about the Self-Defense Forces’ becoming involved in emergencies in the Korean Peninsula. As a result, overseas deployment of the Self-Defense Forces and the possibility of their involvement in war were repeatedly mentioned in the Diet during this period, and criticism of the government intensified. In order to explain the legitimacy of the Self-Defense Forces in the Constitution and their necessity in national security to the public, and to have the public accept such explanation, the government gradually limited the purpose of the Self-Defense Forces to exercise of the right to individual self-defense and established a constitutional interpretation that prohibits the Self-Defense Forces’ overseas deployment. The Sato administration also clarified its interpretation that the Self-Defense Forces cannot be deployed overseas constitutionally in order to promptly achieve passage of a budget by compromising with the Socialist Party, an opposition party.

Following these developments, in 1972, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau expressed a government view that clearly explains for the first time that exercise of the right to collective self-defense is not permitted in the Constitution. Specifically, it stated that “the use of force is permitted under our Constitution only when reacting to imminent and improper invasion of our country; accordingly, it must be said that exercise of the right to collective self-defense that involves any form of blocking armed attacks on other countries is not permitted constitutionally.” At the same time, however, it stated that the use of force is permitted if for “measures that are inevitable to protect the right of life, freedom, and pursuit of happiness of the public.” If for this purpose, it is logically possible to conclude that the use of force is constitutionally permissible even in cases where the right to collective self-defense is exercised. The abovementioned Cabinet decision is founded on this constitutional interpretation of the government in 1972.

Two guidelines

Due to economic exhaustion after the Vietnam War, the U.S. government desired for Japan, which was on its way to becoming a major economic power, to further contribute to peace and security in East Asia. The U.S. desired three things—securing of sea lanes, strengthening of antisubmarine capabilities, and air defense. It was also important for Self-Defense Forces and U.S. military forces to promptly take bilateral actions in emergency situations. Against this background, the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation were formulated in 1978 as the first action guidelines for the U.S.-Japan alliance.

However, the Japanese government held an unfavorable view with regard to the taking of collective action with the military forces of other countries, such as those of the U.S., in a location outside of Japan for the purpose of supporting U.S. troops with the Self-Defense Forces, as it exceeds the scope permitted in the Constitution. The government merely stretched its interpretation of the right to individual self-defense to protect Japan, and did not extend it further than sharing defense of sea lanes around Japan. The U.S. government attempted to counter Soviet military activities that were intensifying again in the Far East by strengthening bilateral actions between the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and U.S. military; however, such attempts were frustrated. The fact that exercising the right to collective self-defense was not constitutionally recognized created an impediment in efforts to develop closer ties in the U.S.-Japan alliance.

As the Cold War concluded and Japanese economic strength became even greater, the U.S. government again came to expect further security contributions from Japan. Unlike Europe, a large number of uncertainties remained in post-war East Asia. Above all, starting in the mid-1990s, Japan’s safety became directly threatened by North Korea’s nuclear development and missile launches. Based on this, a joint U.S.-Japan declaration that oriented the alliance as a “foundation for maintaining stable and prosperous conditions in the Asia-Pacific region” was announced by U.S. President Bill Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1996. This joint declaration noted the necessity of revising the 1978 Guidelines. Even here, however, although the necessity of allowing the exercise of the right to collective self-defense was again deliberated, the Cabinet Legislation Bureau judged that it was not possible due to limitations in the Constitution. Accordingly, a new concept known as “situations in areas surrounding Japan” was born, and the scope of joint response by Japan and the U.S. in the form of further expansion of the right to individual self-defense was broadened.

The fact that Japan could not exercise the right to collective self-defense for constitutional reasons became a large hindrance in strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance. The Armitage-Nye Report of 2000, which was a bipartisan policy recommendation document regarding the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance, stated that “Japan’s prohibition of the exercise of the right to collective self-defense is a limitation in progressing with cooperation for the alliance. By resolving this, further close and efficient security cooperation would be possible; this is something that only the Japanese public can decide.” In the following year, the 9/11 terror attacks occurred, and the necessity of further strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance in the war against terrorism was spotlighted.

Why was it necessary to reexamine security legislation?

What made it necessary for the Abe administration, which came to power in December 2012, to reexamine security legislation were large changes in the security environment caused by growing uncertainties in East Asia and broadening concerns in terms of security. Despite the fact that North Korea occasionally takes a provocative stance vis-à-vis South Korea and Japan, negotiations between North and South Korea and between North Korea and Japan are stagnant. As a result, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is becoming increasingly opaque. In addition, China is continuing a rapid military expansion and is intensifying its activities in the South China Sea and East China Sea. Furthermore, the United States has significantly cut back on defense spending under the Obama administration and is working to avoid external military intervention. Given these factors, there are expectations for Japan to play a larger role in peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

Bringing the security legislation that is currently being discussed in the Diet to fruition will partially allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense and make it possible to solidify the U.S.-Japan alliance even more. It is expected that the most important point here is the possibility of the Japanese government’s providing logistic support to U.S. military forces over a wider scope. This would undoubtedly lead to deepening and strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Moreover, the task of realizing this legislation would have been more difficult had the conventional constitutional interpretation—i.e., complete prohibition of exercising the right to collective self-defense—not been changed to partial prohibition. The creation of new defense guidelines on April 27 of this year has made the U.S.-Japan alliance closer and will probably move it toward a global alliance.

Marking 70 years since the end of World War II, Prime Minister Abe delivered a speech at a joint congressional session of the U.S. House and Senate on April 29. This speech received high commendation and served as an opportunity to confirm the strong ties in the U.S.-Japan alliance. In the future, this alliance must become even stronger as an essential cornerstone for peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

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