Pressing the need for Japan to have the right to exercise collective self-defense, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has cited emergencies in crucial sea lanes and a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
But the government has not provided specifics on how Japan would apply that right in those situations, even while calls grow for Japan to form security alliances with other countries.
Abe plans to change the interpretation of the Constitution to lift Japan’s self-imposed ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense before the current Diet session ends in June.
Discussions at Abe’s private Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security and comments by senior government officials indicate the government so far has three specific cases in mind where Japan will need to exercise that right.
In an emergency situation in the Persian Gulf, the government envisions mines blocking the Strait of Hormuz. A change in the constitutional interpretation would allow the Self-Defense Forces to respond to requests from the United States and other allies to clear the mines, even if the area is in a state of armed conflict.
If a crisis erupts on the Korean Peninsula, the SDF can defend and refuel U.S. warships on the high seas under the new interpretation.
And in the South China Sea, the reinterpretation of the Constitution would allow Japan to form close security alliances with Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations to contain China, government officials said.
According to multiple government sources, the Abe Cabinet’s specific scenario in the Persian Gulf would involve exercising collective self-defense to ensure safe passage through the Strait of Hormuz, where about 80 percent of Japan’s crude oil imports flows.
Amid tensions in the region over Iran’s nuclear development and other issues, Tehran has repeatedly threatened to block the strait, which is only 34 kilometers wide at the narrowest point.
Since 2012, the Maritime Self-Defense Force has shown its minesweeping capabilities during international exercises staged by the U.S. Navy and its allies in the Persian Gulf.
Japanese government officials said there is a high possibility that Washington will ask Tokyo to join minesweeping missions in the strait if a country moves to block the channel.
The current interpretation of the Constitution allows Japan to remove mines only after a cease-fire. The MSDF participated in minesweeping missions after a truce was reached in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
“For Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense means that Japan can participate in U.S.-led wars against other countries,” a senior Defense Ministry official said.
In a Diet debate on Feb. 10, Abe asserted that Japan needs the right to exercise collective self-defense for emergencies on the Korean Peninsula.
“When an emergency situation arises on the Korean Peninsula and there is a possibility that missiles are ready for launch, it would be impermissible for SDF vessels to idly sit by U.S. ships that are under attack,” the prime minister said.
In 1999, the Diet enacted the Law Concerning Measures to Ensure Peace and Security of Japan in Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan to allow SDF troops to provide logistics support to the U.S. military.
But Shinichi Kitaoka, deputy chairman of Abe’s Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security, said the law is insufficient because it only allows SDF troops to refuel and provide logistics support to U.S. military vessels in Japan’s territorial waters.
On the high seas near the battlefront, “Japan can neither defend U.S. vessels nor refuel them, and that clearly shows the shortfalls (of the law),” Kitaoka said.
A change in the constitutional interpretation to allow the right to exercise collective self-defense would let SDF troops join forces with their allies.
The reinterpretation would not only allow MSDF vessels to provide logistics support to U.S. vessels on the high seas but also to defend them and launch counterattacks when they are being attacked. Abe mentioned such a situation during the Diet debate.
Although the Cabinet does not envision SDF troops landing on other countries’ territories after the constitutional reinterpretation, a senior government official mentioned the possibility of SDF troops entering the Korean Peninsula if Seoul requests their presence to help deal with an intensifying conflict.
AROUND SOUTH CHINA SEA
Although the Cabinet mainly sees the United States and South Korea as allies for collective security, close aides to Abe and members of his Liberal Democratic Party say efforts should be made to expand the alliance.
During an interview on a radio program in March, Yosuke Isozaki, an Upper House member and close aide to Abe, named Australia, the Philippines and India as candidate countries for a close alliance under which collective self-defense can be exercised.
In a lecture in March, LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba said the United States should not be the only country with which Japan has a close security alliance.
“The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia should be included as ones,” Ishiba said.
Behind these assertions is the government’s hope that forming closer alliances with countries concerned about Beijing’s maritime advances will help in Japan’s effort to contain China.
Japan will have to wait and see to find out the real impact of such initiatives. However, it is certain that forming collective security alliances with more countries will increase the risk of Japan becoming directly involved in warfare.
By KOJI SONODA