By Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka
Japan took a historic step away from its post-war pacifism on Tuesday by ending a ban that has kept the military from fighting abroad since 1945 – a victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but a move that has riled China and worries many Japanese voters.
The change, the most dramatic shift in defence policy since Japan set up its post-war armed forces exactly 60 years ago, will significantly widen Japan’s military options by ending the ban on exercising “collective self-defence”, or aiding a friendly country under attack.
Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, speaking to reporters outside the prime minister’s office, said Abe’s cabinet had adopted a resolution adopting the shift, which also relaxes limits on activities in U.N.-led peace-keeping operations and “grey zone” incidents short of full-scale war.
Long constrained by the pacifist post-war constitution, Japan’s armed forces will become more aligned with the militaries of other advanced nations, but the government will likely be wary of putting boots on the ground in multilateral operations such as the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The new policy is angering an increasingly assertive China, whose ties with Japan have frayed due to a maritime row, mistrust and the legacy of Japan’s past military aggression.
“China opposes the Japanese fabricating the China threat to promote its domestic political agenda,” Chinese Foreign Ministery spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference in Beijing.
“We demand that Japan respect the reasonable security concerns of its Asian neighbors and prudently handle the relevant matter.”
The shift, however, will be welcomed by Washington, which has long urged Tokyo to become a more equal alliance partner, and by Southeast Asia nations that also have rows with China
Japanese conservatives say the constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 has excessively limited Japan’s ability to defend itself and that a changing regional power balance, including a rising China, means Japan’s policies must be more flexible.
“Conservative governments have pushed the envelope hard and often to get the public to agree to a more elastic interpretation of article 9. Abe is taking a bigger leap and getting away with it, thanks to the Chinese,” said Columbia University political sience professor Gerry Curtis.
Abe, who took office in 2012 promising to revive Japan’s economy and bolster its security posture, has pushed for the change – which revises a longstanding government interpretation of the charter – despite wariness among Japanese voters.
Some voters worry about entanglement in foreign wars and others are angry at what they see as a gutting of Article 9 by ignoring formal amendment procedures. The charter has never been revised since it was adopted after Japan’s 1945 defeat.
On Sunday, a man set himself on fire near a busy Tokyo intersection – a rare form of protest in Japan – after speaking out against Abe’s re-interpretation of Article 9.
Around 2,000 protesters, including pensioners, housewives and trade unionists, marched near the premier’s office on Tuesday carrying banners and shouting, “Don’t destroy Article 9” and “We’re against war”.
“I’m against the right of collective-self defence, but more importantly, I’m against the way Abe is pushing this change through,” said 21-year-old university student Misa Machimura.
Legal revisions to implement the change must be approved by parliament and restrictions could be imposed in the process.
Since its 1945 defeat, Japan’s military has not engaged in combat. Past governments have stretched the constitution’s limits to develop a military now on par with that of France and to permit non-combat missions abroad, but its armed forces remain far more constrained legally than those of other nations.
China has already argued that Japan is raising regional tensions and seeks to back its case by pointing to Abe’s efforts to cast Tokyo’s wartime past with a less apologetic tone.
“It makes it easier for competitors to paint Japan as a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Richard Samuels, director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he added: “Just because Japan is strong does not mean that it will be aggressive.”
According to the cabinet resolution, Japan could exercise force to the minimum degree necessary in cases where a country with which it has close ties is attacked and the following conditions are met: there is a threat to the existence of the Japanese state, there is a clear danger that the people’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness could be subverted, and there is no appropriate alternative.
Precisely how the change might work in practice remains unclear, although it is likely to ease the path to joint military exercises with countries other than the United States. New Kometi, the junior partner in Abe’s governing coalition, says the scope of revision is limited, and Japanese voters are still wary of entanglements in conflicts far from home.
“I only see this happening in areas near Japan. I don’t see Japan deploying far-away forces in the context where then end up in the front lines,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of Honoulu-based think tank Pacific Forum CSIS.