On 29 March 2016, Japan’s new security laws came into effect. The laws were passed in September 2015 despite not being favoured by the opposition parties and many Japanese people. The new laws allow the Japanese Self Defense Forces (SDF) to participate in foreign conflicts. In fact, it broadens the notion of ‘self defence’ of Japan to a ‘collective self defence for allies’. Effectively, the change to the country’s security laws is part of a broader strategy. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been trying to amend Article 9 and Article 96 of the ‘peace constitution’ to reorient the Japanese armed forces according to his aggressive postures. There are all probabilities that Abe would try to amend Article 9 after the July 2016 Upper House elections in Japan.
Following the incident wherein the Islamic State (IS) beheaded two Japanese nationals, the new security laws have been justified on the grounds that Japanese citizens abroad too must be protected. Abe’s other important motivation is the fact that in Japan’s contest with China vis-à-vis regional politics, it is important for Tokyo to have more seamless and close military cooperation with the US; and the erstwhile laws put several limitations to it. The third reason Japan opted for the new laws is its long quest to become a ‘normal state’, with an interpretation that Japan must have military capabilities equal to its economic might.
From the very beginning of his term in 2012, Abe has appeared to be clear that Japan needs to adjust its posture given the changing realities of regional and global politics. With an assertive China under President Xi Jinping in the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the neighbourhood, Abe got a valid excuse for his venture. Consistent North Korean provocations in the form of nuclear and missile tests as well as aggressive rhetoric further helps Abe in altering the country’s security posture which becomes palatable domestically as well as abroad.
Actually, Japan has been undergoing a transformation in which its ‘peace dividend’ that is earned by being a peace-loving country and a benefactor to many countries in the economic development via its Official Developmental Assistance (ODA) is considered insufficient. A stagnant economy with an increasing ageing population do not bring much hope to common people. There are opinions that since these limitations appear insurmountable in the near future, Japan needs a different strategy to maintain its regional and global stature. The new strategy indicates that Tokyo has been getting itself geared up to be a military power and is not satisfied with the stagnant economic or ‘peace dividend’. Last week, results of a survey conducted by Japan’s Kyodo news agency showed that around 39 per cent Japanese were in favour of the new security laws. Yet, a majority of the Japanese citizens feel the country should adhere to its peace constitution; but Abe’s popularity and the growing support for the Constitutional amendment indicate that irrespective of the justification, Japan is poised to be become a military power in the region.
As expected, China strongly objected to these security laws. China’s state-owned news agency, Xinhua, published several news items and opinions that condemned Japan for ‘lack of prudence’ and ‘violation of the country’s pacifist Constitution’. It was also urged that Japan should learn from its history. The Beijing-Tokyo bilateral – that was expected to improve following the November 2015 China-Japan-South Korea trilateral meeting – again appears to be an impossible proposition. At the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, Abe and Xi avoided each other during photo sessions and had no bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Summit.
In contrast, the US, Japan and South Korea had a trilateral meeting and discussed issues related to their common concerns. Throughout the process of the ongoing transformation in the Japanese posture, the US has not raised any objection. Instead, Washington feels that its regional allies becoming more active is better at a time when its own capabilities and reach are getting less assuring. Had Japan’s new security laws been implemented a few decades ago, the US would have viewed it rather differently. South Korea may have some historical memories to overcome before welcoming Japan’s new aggressive posture but it appears that gradually, Seoul’s Park Geun-hye administration is accepting it as fait accompli.
Thus, the implementation of Japan’s new security laws is not a one-off incident, and instead indicates a trend in Japan’s transformation. This transformation has its domestic and external contexts and justifications but will definitely have a bearing on the regional political equations. It would be a matter of judgment to state whether Japan is moving in the right direction or not. However, it could be safely said that in the contest in East Asia, none of the parties are ready to compromise and Japan is definitely not an exception.