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Japan’s Self-Defense Defense

CAMBRIDGE – Since the end of World War II, Japan has been ruled by an American-written “peace constitution,” Article 9 of which prohibits war and limits Japanese forces to self-defense. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now seeking legislation to enable Japan to reinterpret the constitution to include “collective self-defense,” whereby the country would enhance its security cooperation with other countries, particularly its closest ally, the United States.

Critics view this as a radical departure from seven decades of pacifism. But Abe’s central objectives – improving Japan’s ability to respond to threats that do not amount to armed attack; enabling Japan to participate more effectively in international peacekeeping activities; and redefining measures for self-defense permitted under Article 9 – are actually relatively modest.

Fears that the move would lead to Japanese involvement in distant US wars are similarly overblown. Indeed, the rules have been carefully crafted to prohibit such adventures, while allowing Japan to work more closely with the US on direct threats to Japanese security.

It is not difficult to see why Abe is pursuing broader rights to self-defense. Japan lies in a dangerous region, in which deep-rooted tensions threaten to erupt at any moment.

Given that East Asia, unlike Europe after 1945, never experienced full reconciliation among rivals, or established strong regional institutions, it has been forced to depend on the US-Japan Security Treaty to underpin regional stability. When US President Barack Obama’s administration announced its “rebalancing” toward Asia in 2011, it reaffirmed the 1996 Clinton-Hashimoto Declaration, which cited the US-Japan security alliance as the foundation for stability – a prerequisite for continued economic progress – in Asia.

That declaration served the larger goal of establishing a stable, albeit uneven, triangular relationship among the US, Japan, and China. Subsequent US administrations have upheld this approach, and opinion polls show that it retains broad acceptance in Japan – not least owing to close cooperation on disaster relief following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

But Japan remains extremely vulnerable. The most immediate regional threat is North Korea, whose unpredictable dictatorship has invested its meager economic resources in nuclear and missile technology.

A longer-term concern is the rise of China – an economic and demographic powerhouse whose expanding military capacity has enabled it to take an increasingly assertive stance in territorial disputes, including with Japan in the East China Sea. China’s territorial ambitions are also fueling tensions in the South China Sea, where sea-lanes that are vital to Japanese trade are located.

Complicating matters further is the fact that China’s political evolution has failed to keep pace with its economic progress. If the Chinese Communist Party feels threatened by a public frustrated with insufficient political participation and enduring social repression, it could slip into competitive nationalism, upending the already-delicate regional status quo.

Of course, if China becomes aggressive, Asian countries like India and Australia – which are already disturbed by China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea – will join Japan in the effort to offset China’s power. But, as things stand, a strategy of containment would be a mistake. After all, the best way to engender enmity is to treat China as an enemy.

A more effective approach, spearheaded by the US and Japan, would focus on integration, with a hedge against uncertainty. American and Japanese leaders must shape the regional environment in such a way that China has incentives to act responsibly, including by maintaining strong defense capabilities.

Meanwhile, the US and Japan must rethink the structure of their alliance. While the expected revisions to Japan’s defense framework are a positive development, many Japanese still resent the lack of symmetry in the alliance obligations. Others chafe at the burden of US bases, particularly on the island of Okinawa.

A longer-term goal should thus be for the US gradually to transfer its bases to Japanese control, leaving American forces to rotate among them. In fact, some bases – notably, Misawa Air Base north of Tokyo – already fly Japan’s flag, while hosting American units.

But the process must be handled carefully. As China invests in advanced ballistic missiles, the fixed bases on Okinawa become increasingly vulnerable. To avoid the perception that the US decided to turn the bases over to Japan just when their military benefits were diminishing, and to ensure that the move represented America’s recommitment to the alliance, a joint commission would have to be established to manage the transfer.

For Japan, becoming an equal partner in its alliance with the US is essential to securing its regional and global standing. To this end, Abe’s modest step toward collective self-defense is a step in the right direction.