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Amending Japan’s pacifist principle is the least of Abe’s problems

Image credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana (Flickr: Creative Commons)

In May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his intention to revise Japan’s pacifist principle by 2020. While this move is controversial, amending the Constitution is likely to be the least of his concerns.

Pacifism is embodied in Japan’s Constitution and is a remnant of its post-war identity. Article 9 manifests Japan’s renunciation of war and its declaration to never have ‘land, sea, and air force as well as other war potential’. The Constitution allows Japan to defend itself if an enemy’s intention to attack Japan is evident, the threat is imminent and there are no other defence options.

Mr Abe has made no secret of his ambition to expand Japan’s military powers. The Self-Defense Force is already an impressive collection of combat aircraft, destroyers, aircraft carriers and submarines. Abe’s 2015 legislation stretched the interpretation of self-defense to include ‘collective self-defense,’ and authorised the military to participate in overseas combat missions. It can come to the aid of an ally under three conditions: Japan’s survival is at stake, all other non-military options have been exhausted and the use of force is limited to the minimum necessary to deter aggression.

The latest proposal to amend the Constitution came in the wake of the 2016 election in which the Liberal Democrats gained control over both Houses of Parliament. Mr Abe said that ‘this is the people’s voice letting us firmly move forward’. Indeed, 70% want the issue to remain open and to see active debate on constitutional revision in Diet sessions. However, some argue that voters did not give a mandate to Abe, but actually had few viable alternatives, and the result represented a collective and habitual resignation to the status quo. During the campaign, the Liberal Democrats kept quiet about the issue of revising the pacifist principle which has been the subject of huge protests in Tokyo.

The process of revising the Constitution itself is incredibly complex, requiring consensus with coalition partners around the parts of the Constitution to change in the first place. Any revision to the Constitution would then depend on a referendum, which can be wildly unpredictable as demonstrated by the fallout after Brexit. A referendum at this stage would be a risk for Abe since 50% of the population remain opposed to amending Article 9.

There are clear reasons for Japan to push for military empowerment. While North Korea’s attempts to miniaturise nuclear weapons have suffered technical setbacks, its test launches in recent months have revealed its ability to target South Korea and Japan with medium-range missiles. In light of these threats, Mr Abe said Pyongyang was ‘trampling on the international community’s efforts aimed at a peaceful settlement’, in response to which Japan’s use of military force should no longer be seen as unconstitutional.

Japan’s military expansion is also motivated by its territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which demonstrated that de facto possession makes international law redundant, and Washington’s dissatisfaction with the US-Japan treaty only serve to strengthen Tokyo’s agenda. Any moves by Japan to increase its military capabilities should be carefully calculated to avoid aggravating China, as was seen in 2012.

Notwithstanding these threats to Japan’s security, its fiscal conservatism raises the question of whether strengthening the military is even possible, let alone plausible. Previous governments have limited the defence budget to less than 1% of GDP, which is currently ¥5.17 trillion (AUD$62 billion). Mr Abe will need to reconcile Japan’s fragile economy and stagnant GDP with his ambition to expand military capabilities.

Amending Article 9 will necessarily involve the painful process of shedding Japan’s post-war pacifism in a risky referendum. That isn’t the end of the story, however, as Mr Abe confronts the bigger problems of avoiding the ire of powerful neighbours and revitalising the economy under increasing pressure from the North.

Catherine Garlick holds a Bachelor of Arts and Law from the University of Queensland.

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