Revamping the Rules of Engagement for the Rising Sun

A cursory overview of Japan’s recent defense initiatives

By Bolton Smith

Recently the Japanese Diet approved Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s initiative to rewrite rules of engagement for the Japanese Self Defense Force (SDF), precipitating a wave of criticism and controversy. Street protesters, politicians (some of whom engaged in a fist fight on the legislative floor), and even some scholars are raising concerns over the expanded role of the SDF. Their fears primarily focus on the view that the new legislation will entangle Japan in unnecessary conflict, violate parts of the Japanese constitution, and revitalize a nationalism that Japan has largely suppressed since the Second World War.

Are these critics’ concerns valid about the dangers of expanding the SDF’s role in Japanese defense? Japan’s defense legislation is relatively limited in scope, and avoids implementing major constitutional revisions. One of the two most controversial bills, the international peacekeeping assistance bill, allows Japanese “Blue Helmets” (soldiers fighting in UN battalions) to aid other peacekeepers and engage enemy combatants, using deadly force if necessary. Before introducing the international peacekeeping bill, the Japanese largely provided non-combat support units (such as engineers, medics, etc.) to assist in operations. However, their constitution legally barred them from reinforcing or assisting other UN units engaged in firefights. Practically speaking, the SDF will not likely engage militants in South Sudan – Japan’s largest operation with the UN peacekeepers – until it can deploy combat regiments to the region. But deploying military forces will put Japan at risk of combat fatalities. Combat fatalities could have serious political ramifications for Japanese domestic politics given that Japanese public approval of SDF deployments relies significantly on low casualties and the humanitarian nature of the operations.

The second bill allows Japan to militarily aid of its allies engaged in the region – namely the United States and South Korea. This bill follows a revision of U.S-Japanese defense strategy for the Senkaku/Diaoyo island chain. This new defense strategy depends on maritime assistance from U.S forces to block Chinese naval ships from breaking into the high Pacific before U.S reinforcements can arrive. Without this legislative permission, the SDF cannot reinforce American forces in the region, which could allow Chinese ships to dominate the islands and associated waterways and to gain a significant strategic advantage over Japan in any potential conflict. Naturally, given the recent aggressive Chinese and Japanese rhetoric over the ownership of islands in the South China Sea, this move will not only increase the operational flexibility of the Japanese military, but will also reaffirm Japan’s willingness and capability to defend its claims of sovereignty in the South China sea in the face of potential Chinese aggression.

Western audiences will likely view these changes as long overdue. However, Japan’s hesitation and political controversy make sense in the context of changes in Japan’s cultural and political psyche following its defeat in World War II. Practically, Japan needs these changes to normalize its military capabilities, which will demonstrate to its allies that it is taking an active and expanded role in its own defense and will allow for greater cooperation on international operations.

The Japanese constitution still bans wars of offensive aggression and any conflicts outside international peacekeeping or defense of allies, so Japan should not take more aggressive stances militarily and should not engage in overseas military action. Japan’s Self Defense Force is directly accountable to the civilian government of Japan, so the Japanese people still have democratic controls over potential military engagements and could use democratic means to check any aggressive military actions or further legislative attempts to broaden Japanese defense capabilities.

Fears from critics are largely overblown, but they will likely persist. Japan has benefitted from a constrained defense budget, kept low by constitutional mandate, which has allowed it to use potential defense funds elsewhere (education, welfare, etc.). Because Japan, through its post-war history and engrained in its institutions, has been conditioned to abstain from war and to minimize defense budgets, it must now normalize and socialize its defense politics and embrace its role as a healthy liberal and modern democracy. The process may be long and difficult, but in the end it will allow Japan to contribute to a pacific alliance with the United States not just as a dependent, but also as a partner, and set a course for Japan to emerge from its post-WWII defense restrictions to gain the normalcy and defense self-determination of a strong and healthy nation-state.

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