On 1 July 2014 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced an official shift in Japan’s defense posture, stating that his government had “reinterpreted” Article IX of the Japanese Constitution, which had restricted the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) since its founding in 1954. Article IX reads, “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” According to previous Japanese courts and lawmakers, the article limited the use of force to inherent self-defense of its security forces. Now interpreted as collective self-defense, the JSDF may take military action to protect allies and those “in a close relationship” with Japan for the defense of the Japanese homeland—not an extraordinarily extreme position, but a step that Japan needed nearly 70 years to take.1
The United States rightly welcomes Prime Minister Abe’s decision as a move toward much closer U.S.-Japanese security ties. More than 50,000 American military personnel are forward-deployed in Japan to defend their ally and the region. Japan’s promise to defend these forces is of course self-serving.2 The true value of the constitutional reinterpretation for the United States, however, is how Japan will act beyond its borders.
The most significant changes will be at sea. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force can now come to the aid of a U.S. warship under attack or intercept a ballistic missile heading toward U.S. territory.3 Japanese forces are, however, limited to defense of allies when an enemy threatens Japan. Thus, realistic scenarios of collective self-defense take place in the seas around Japan, and U.S. forward-deployed naval forces in the Asia-Pacific are most likely to feel the reinterpretation.
Japan’s more proactive strategy is undoubtedly a reactive posture to the ongoing Senkaku Islands dispute with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the PRC Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, and the People’s Liberation Army-Navy’s aggression toward Vietnam and the Philippines. Minimal protection of national borders and interests is no longer an effective defense of Japan. Collective self-defense allows for far greater operational latitude when real-world contingencies might require Japan to operate forward alongside its allies, mainly the United States.
Collective self-defense, however, is not and should not be restricted to the U.S.-Japanese alliance. With the Senkakus a mere 300 miles from Philippine territory, Tokyo should seek closer military ties with Manila. Washington’s mutual-defense treaties with both nations enable the United States to facilitate such a partnership. In the northeast, collective self-defense and a continuously menacing North Korea may help thaw relations between Tokyo and Seoul.
In the U.S. “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, collective self-defense is a promising step forward for regional security and serves as a model for Washington’s broader regional strategy. If Washington is to construct an Asia-Pacific security framework à la an Asian NATO that builds on existing Asia-Pacific institutions, regional “collective self-defense” is a rather apt blueprint. U.S. defense partners would come together not as an offensive alliance but as a group of nations bound in the collective defense of the Asia-Pacific against aggressors.
Critics of Japan’s constitutional reinterpretation cite 20th-century history and militarization as their fears, but comparisons of pre–World War II Imperial Japan to the modern civil government’s absolute control over the JSDF are misguided. Opponents also claim the reinterpretation is part of the “remilitarization” of Japan. Defense spending accounts for a minor 1 percent of Japan’s GDP—a defense-to-GDP figure that places Japan 129th in the world, right between Switzerland and Jamaica.4 The change in tactical-employment policy through collective self-defense aligns Japan’s capable yet numbered forces closer to the militaries of other advanced nations. The constitutional reinterpretation is thereby normalizing, not militarizing, Japan’s defense posture.
Washington should fully embrace the policy shift with more cohesive interoperability, in line with the biannual Keen Sword exercise. More important, as Japan brings allies under its self-defense umbrella, the United States should unite its partners for the “collective self-defense” of the precarious Asia-Pacific.5 Seventy years prior, the Pacific witnessed the largest naval battles in history. Now only a lockstep U.S.-Japanese alliance will ensure that their devastating battles were the Pacific’s last.
2. Martin Fackler and David E. Sanger, “Japan Announces a Military Shift to Thwart China,” The New York Times, 1 July 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/07/02/world/asia/japan-moves-to-permit-greater-use-of-its-military.html.
4. CIA World Factbook, 2012 data.
5. Robert D. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House), 2014.