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Japan will decide this month whether to grow its own military or remain reliant on U.S. military might.
America’s alliance with Japan is a foundational element of the United States and its allies’ East Asia security architecture. However, Japan’s internal dynamics, which affect its ability to conduct military affairs, rarely catch the eye of the American public. In a region that presents many challenges, it’s easy to overlook the relative calm of Japan’s domestic politics. Yet changes are afoot that could alter the security relationship between the U.S. and Japan in a greater way than at any time since the establishment of the alliance.
Since the end of World War II, Japan has been nearly dependent on the United States for its security. American defense commitments in Japan include more than 50,0000 permanently stationed troops along with a sizable naval force that guarantees freedom of navigation in the Pacific Ocean. This arrangement has worked well for decades. But shifting regional security dynamics, including increased threats from North Korea and China, have left some on both sides of the Pacific rethinking Japan’s role in the alliance.
The role of the Japanese military has taken center stage in this debate. The reach, capabilities and – some would argue – very existence of the small Japanese Self-Defense Forces, are limited by Article 9 in the country’s pacifist constitution. This constitutionally tenuous status limits the ability of Japan’s armed forces to coordinate with allies and to anticipate and counter threats originating outside of Japanese territory. Successive administrations have interpreted Article 9 as allowing for Japan to defend itself. But as these interpretations are temporary, expanding Japan’s understanding of “self-defense” will likely require concrete constitutional changes.
Japan’s current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, shares this conviction, and has set about to amend Japan’s constitution to specifically recognize and allow for a permanent military. Changes of this sort would require a two-thirds approval in the Japanese legislature, the Diet. Sensing that he may be able to reach this threshold, Abe recently dissolved the legislature and announced a snap election on Oct. 22. The election – which is essentially a referendum on Abe’s proposed constitutional changes – is important to American security for both symbolic and tangible reasons.
Symbolically, codifying the role of the Self-Defense Forces would signal Japan’s readiness to actively protect its interests after decades of following America’s lead. Given the increased erratic behavior of North Korea and, over the longer term, the uncertain course of China’s rise, a constitutional change will act as a signal that Japan is taking its security seriously. For America, it would symbolize that the country is ready to take on a more permanent and expanded role in contributing to the region’s security. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have welcomed and encouraged international allies to share more of the burden of maintaining shared security goals, and the current lack of clarity surrounding Japan’s defense forces hinders its ability to contribute to shared priorities.
As for tangible outcomes, codifying and expanding the role of the Japanese Self Defense Forces will create additional opportunities for cooperation with the American military and the militaries of regional partners, such as South Korea and Taiwan. The Abe administration has already allowed for the deployment of Japanese forces to Africa to conduct peacekeeping missions, but combined missions with Taiwanese and Korean forces have proven more controversial, in part because they stretch the limits of constitutional “reinterpretation.” Abe’s proposed initiatives would be an important first step toward ameliorating this situation. Japan would also be able to expand its use of civilian technologies to combat “grey zone” threats, whether in cyberspace or the open seas. The most recent U.S. and Japanese defense guidance calls for such cooperation, but Japan’s ability to contribute remains hindered by questions of legality.
Japanese attitudes toward pacifism aren’t simply a constitutional quirk. They are deeply embedded in Japan’s modern conception of itself and its role in the world. The Japanese public is evenly split on whether the constitutional changes are a good idea; many worry that the changes would entangle Japan in international conflicts. A new opposition party has emerged to appeal to these ideas, bringing the Prime Minister’s goal of securing at least two-thirds of the legislature seats for his party into question. Even if he achieves his electoral goals, many question whether Abe will have the time or political capital to pass such a controversial legislative initiative.
Whether Abe ultimately succeeds in moving the needle, the upcoming election is forcing a needed conversation in Japan about the country’s changing security situation. At the time when Japan’s constitution was written, there was no power that could challenge the dominance of The United States in the region, but times have changed. North Korea now regularly launches nuclear-capable missiles over Japanese territory, and China is rapidly modernizing its military and increasing its ability to project power.
The results of the upcoming election will thus signal whether Japan sees these threats as dangerous enough to its national security to accept a more permanent role for its military. For America, the election will reveal whether Japan is ready to contribute to its own security at a level more commensurate with the country’s technical and economic prowess. The U.S. will remain Japan’s staunch friend, but the time has come for Japan to recognize and determine the role that will play in ensuring its own security.
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