NEWS FROM JAPAN - ABE'S “PROACTIVE PACIFISM"
In recent weeks, tensions in the East China Sea have significantly escalated in a vicious circle of provocations and confrontational rhetoric between Tokyo and Beijing.
The escalation plays into the hands of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is accelerating his efforts to change war-renouncing Article 9 of the constitution and strengthen Japan’s security and military posture.
In this context of mounting tensions, the governmental panel of experts on security issues, initially set up by Abe during his first mandate and revived in December 2012, presented its recommendations to the Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet on October 21, 2013.
The document outlines key elements for a new national security policy that will serve as the basis to revise the country’s National Defense Program Guidelines for the years to come. The final version of the new security strategy is expected to be concluded by December to be approved once relevant ministries and the ruling coalition have worked out its details.
However, the general debate on changing the interpretation of the constitution, scheduled to take place by year’s end, seems to have been postponed to next year’s ordinary Diet session. The delay is due to the refusal of coalition partner New Komeito – that presents itself as a peace upholding party – to endorse the Cabinet’s attempts to review the interpretation behind closed doors.
According to New Komeito’s Yamaguchi Natsuo, for decades, consecutive governments "have held a stance that the spirit of the constitution is that Japan does not use force overseas. The Self-Defence Forces have been used for humanitarian aid or disaster relief. Any attempts or consideration should be the extension of that stance and within that boundary." He has made clear that his party stands firm on maintaining the historical interpretation of the constitution – a position that seems to be supported by a popular majority, according to opinion polls.
Claiming to set the ground for "a proactive pacifism based on the principle of international cooperation", the panel’s report makes recommendations on the nature of the new national security policy that are fully in line with Abe’s public efforts to strengthen Japan's defense capabilities and broaden the scope of defense cooperation with other countries.
Expectedly, the document significantly revisits a number of key principles that have governed Japan for decades, notably its longstanding self-imposed arms export embargo.
On December 5, a working group of the ruling coalition (LDP and New Komeito) adopted a new Arms Export Control Principle that would allow Japan to export arms in cases where it "serves the country’s national security" – thus de facto abandoning the 1967 Three Principles on Arms Export. The process for formalizing this new principle remains opaque and will need to be monitored in the coming months.
If the report makes no explicit mention of Abe’s declared goals of lifting Japan’s self-imposed ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense or changing the interpretation of war-renouncing Article 9, it nonetheless paves the way to the exercise of right of collective self-defense by calling for "further strengthening national security and defense cooperation” between Japan and other countries, notably the United States. The document also lays down Abe’s new principle of “proactive pacifism.”
Over the last few months, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and members of his administration have often terms such as “proactive pacifism” and “pro-active contribution to peace” when speaking about their vision for Japan’s foreign policy and security.
The idea was first mentioned last June at the annual Asia Security Summit known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, where Minister of Defense Onodera Itsunori explained Japan’s review of its defense policy as a way to empower the country to “play a responsible role as a member of the international community” and to “make a more proactive and creative contribution toward regional stability.”
Since then, Abe has actively promoted the concept of “active pacifism”.
In his address to the UN General Assembly in September, he pledged that he “will make Japan a force for peace and stability, just as it has been until now” and promised the world body that “Japan will newly bear the flag of "Proactive Contribution to Peace," anchoring on the undeniable records and solid appraisal of our country, which has endeavored to bring peace and prosperity to the world, emphasizing cooperation with the international community.”
He also gave insurance that he will “enable Japan, as a Proactive Contributor to Peace, to be even more actively engaged in UN collective security measures, including peacekeeping operations” – participation that has been controversial under the present interpretation of Article 9 of Japan’s constitution.
A rebranding exercise?
Yet, if Abe has fallen short of spelling out what “pro-active pacifism” specifically entails – he even claims to leave the task of spelling it out for a later stage – he has made no secret that the initiative requires to achieve some of his long-cherished goals, notably of revising (or at least re-interpreting) Article 9 of Japan’s constitution, regaining the right of collective self-defense and extending Japan’s military role regionally and internationally, in order to allow the country to better contribute to world peace.
"Defense capabilities should reflect a country's will and ability to protect its peace and independence, so we need to acquire defense capabilities that will allow the SDF to play the role that is required of them," Abe told the panel.
In the same vein, during the 21st Japan-EU Summit held in Tokyo in November, Abe also included “initiatives such as the establishment of a National Security Council, the formulation of its first National Security Strategy, the review of National Defence Programme Guidelines, and the re-examination of (the) legal basis for security including the matter of exercising the right of collective self-defence” as necessary steps to enhance Japan’s capacity to “proactively contribute even more to peace and stability in the region and the world, based on the principle of international cooperation.”
As part of his grand plan to bolster the country’s security and military posture, Abe has pushed through some significant policies. Notably, the Defense Ministry announced early November that it was seeking to increase the country’s military budget for 2014 to 4.8928 trillion yen – an increase of almost 3% from this fiscal year.
Further, on November 27, the Upper House of the Diet adopted a law establishing Japan’s first National Security Council. A set up of some 60+ staff, the new organization is considered a replica of the US National Security Council.
The bill came through a day after Abe forced through a highly controversial and broadly contested secrecy law, which imposes penalties of up to 10 years of imprisonment on people accused of leaking information deemed as state secrets by Cabinet ministers and heads of government agencies, notably information concerning diplomacy, defense, counter-terrorism and counter-espionage.
The forcing through of these decisions, despite strong popular opposition, indicates Abe’s determination to pursue his major policies and casts a shadow on the future of the constitutional debate.
Thus, to many observers, the coining of the concept of “pro-active pacifism” seems to be nothing else than seeking international legitimacy for his declared efforts at the national level to amend the constitution and build up Japan’s military capability.
In Japan, a number of observers, including military analyst Maeda Tetsuo, former diplomat and former director of Hiroshima Peace Institute Asai Motofumi, and peace and disarmament advocate Kawasaki Akira, are raising concerns about using terms such as “pro-active pacifism”. Citing examples ranging from the Roman Empire’s “Pax Romana”, to Truman’s praise of the sacrifices by US soldiers as "fighting for peace" in the 195-53 Korean War, and the calling of the 1982 Lebanon war as “Operation Peace in Galilee”, they argue that throughout history, promoting peace has often been used as the rationale for justifying wars.
At the international level, Abe seems to garner Western backing, as stated in the joint statement issued at the Japan-EU summit that reads: “The EU welcomed the prospect of Japan contributing more proactively to regional and global peace and security and its work to this end.”
Not surprisingly, the US “also welcomed Japan’s determination to contribute
more proactively to regional and global peace and security" as part of a “strategic vision for a more robust Alliance and greater shared responsibilities.” In the Joint Statement issued on October 3 by US Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel, and Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs Kishida and Minister of Defense Onodera, Washington further welcomes Japan’s efforts “to expand its role within the framework of the U.S.-Japan Alliance, … establish its National Security Council and to issue its National Security Strategy… [as well as to] re-examin[e] the legal basis for its security including the matter of exercising its right of collective self-defense, expanding its defense budget, reviewing its National Defense Program Guidelines, [and] strengthening its capability to defend its sovereign territory.
At the regional level, however, the initiative raises anxiety among Japan’s East Asian neighbors, notably China and South Korea, which fear that while Abe speaks of Japan’s role and position in international affairs when talking of “active pacifism,” he is in fact targeting China and the region.
"The idea of active pacifism is a major change in Japan's defense visions. It will also highly likely be realized by revising the law, a situation that has never happened in Japan since the war," explains Li Wei, director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "Where will Japan's security policies go ahead and how will they realize it? We'll follow closely," Li adds.
Likewise, in Seoul, some have expressed concerns that Japan's push to strengthen its military through constitutional revision may encroach on South Korea's sovereignty. According to a Korean official: “It would be unacceptable for (Japan to) stretch its interpretation of the right, and (exercise the right) to address issues involving the Korean Peninsula and sovereignty of South Korea.” If in an unexpected turn of event a senior Japanese official seem to have given Seoul some guarantees that SDF would not carry out activities in the Korean Peninsula without prior consent, the climate remains tense.
Need for an East Asian Collective Security Mechanism
Indeed, the debate on Abe’s “pro-active pacifism” cannot be taken out of the regional context, notably the escalating tensions and growing territorial disputes between Asian neighbors.
"I think political temperature has risen a little bit, and this needs to be addressed," said Angela Kane, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, during her recent visit to Seoul. She further cautioned against the rise in military expenditures in East Asia.
Citing the case of Europe where military expenditures have decreased as an example, Kane called for a collective security mechanism in East Asia. "I'm hoping there's a forum within the region that can address that. I understand there isn't much of a forum to address it," she said.
Former Japanese Ambassador to China Miyamoto Yuji concurs. East Asia has entered such an era that "we have to have a large platform for dialogue, a security mechanism that makes everyone assured."
It will take a lot to overcome skepticism over Abe’s political motives, both at home and in the region. Abe will have to reconcile his vision for Japan’s “pro-active contribution to peace” with the country’s longstanding pacific policies, and his controversial takes on historical and reconciliation issues. It will also require strong diplomatic efforts to establish dialogue with Japan’s neighbors and beyond.
Image credit: Toru Hanai/Reuters & Pool/Getty