Proactive diplomacy for peace under Japan’s new security legislation

Author: Hitoshi Tanaka, JCIE

International scrutiny of Japan’s foreign policy direction and defence policy posture has been particularly intense in recent months. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 14 August statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and security legislation passed on 19 September, have brought renewed attention to the topic.

In the lead-up to Abe’s August statement, speculation was rife that relations between Japan and its Asian neighbours would further deteriorate over historical issues. Still, the Abe statement struck a balance that earned a favourable review from the Japanese public, satisfied his conservative political support base for the most part and avoided any serious worsening of relations with China and South Korea. Critically, Prime Minister Abe acknowledged and upheld the war apologies of previous Japanese governments and declared that this ‘position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future’.

While the Chinese and South Korean governments were not fully satisfied with the Abe statement, their criticism was relatively restrained. This leaves the door open for serious efforts to improve trilateral relations. On the sidelines of China’s own World War II anniversary activities on 3 September, Chinese President Xi Jinping consulted with South Korea President Park Geun-hye regarding the possibility of restarting trilateral Japan–China–ROK summits. Follow-up efforts are now needed by all three countries to make this a reality.

At the same time, having clearly upheld past Japanese government war apologies, it is time for Japan to shift its focus to the development of proactive and forward looking diplomacy.

The passing of the recent security legislation has been criticised in some circles as an attempt by Japan to return to militarism or to establish itself as a so-called ‘normal nation’. The security bills slightly loosen the self-imposed constraints on Japan’s defence, but this has been carried out within the framework of the Article 9 ‘peace clause’ of the Japanese Constitution.

The new legislation permits the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to use force for the purpose of collective self-defence only if ‘an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs,’ the attack ‘threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’, there are ‘no other appropriate means available to repel the attack’, and the use of force is limited to ‘the minimum extent necessary’. The bills also expand the permissible scope of the SDF to provide rear-area logistical support to friendly countries, respond to ‘grey zone’ incursions into Japanese territory short of an outright armed attack, and participate more effectively in UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs) in line with international norms.

The trigger for resorting to the exercise of collective self-defence should be read by both Japan’s neighbours and future Japanese governments as being related exclusively to defensive objectives. Some of the government explanations in the Diet debates may have been misleading, especially the example of a demining mission in the Hormuz Strait, which suggested that economic triggers would be permissible. But Japan is still highly constrained in terms of pursuing collective self-defence as a tool to achieve any political or economic agenda.

Practically speaking, the security bills open the door for SDF participation in joint contingency planning. The SDF can also now provide more substantial rear-area and logistical support to friendly militaries in the event of a situation that would seriously influence Japan’s security. With regard to UN PKOs, past Japanese contributions were undermined by excessive restrictions beyond international and UN norms. SDF troops were under the protection of troops from other nations, but they were not allowed to help defend those very soldiers who were protecting them. Bringing SDF participation in UN PKOs in line with UN norms will enable Japan to contribute more substantially to the peaceful enhancement of the international security environment.

Japan’s peaceful but low-profile foreign policy posture over the last 70 years has been a source of both praise and criticism. Japan has been commended for eschewing war but has also been disparaged for its passive cheque-book diplomacy and the asymmetrical nature of its security dependence on the United States.

Given the ongoing structural changes in Asia, there is a need for Japan to take on a more proactive diplomatic approach to peace. This should be premised on the following five key principles.

First, Japan must squarely face up to history. The basis for the Japanese government’s official recognition of history continues to be the 1995 Murayama Statement, which included an apology for Japan’s wartime transgressions, and the 1993 Kono Statement, which included an apology for and recognition of the role of the Japanese military in forcibly recruiting some of the comfort women. There is absolutely no reason to back away from these positions in the future. Any statements or actions by Japanese political or social leaders that are seen as denying or downplaying this recognition of history will cast doubt on Japan’s future intentions. History issues must not be allowed to impede the deepening of mutual trust between Japan and its neighbours, nor disrupt the regional order amid the shifting balance of power.

Second, a national commitment to peace should be maintained. After its defeat in World War II, Japan transformed itself and has maintained a peaceful posture under Article 9. Under the new security legislation, Japan should still maintain this peaceful posture. While it can now engage more actively in international security cooperation, Japan’s basic security outlook must still be rooted in a defensive approach that does not use military means to pursue economic or political agendas.

Third, Japan must provide for its self-defence and enhance international security. The two key pillars of Japan’s defence are the SDF and the US–Japan alliance. To ensure its security, Japan must continue to rely on the United States, and especially its nuclear umbrella. But the threshold for the United States to resort to the use of force internationally has been raised under the Obama administration. As such, Japan should take on greater responsibility for its own defence and increase cooperation with partners such as Australia, India, South Korea and ASEAN. It should also play a more active role in the peaceful enhancement of international security through the UN PKOs and other means.

Fourth, Japan should advance democratic values. The foundational elements of Japan’s democracy include not just elections, but also a respect for the rule of law, human rights and the principles of a market economy. Japan cannot and should not use military force to promote democracy. But it can act quietly behind the scenes, including through institutional capacity building, to assist developing countries in establishing the foundational elements of democratic society.

Lastly, Japan should pursue more active and strategic diplomacy. Future global economic growth and dynamism will undoubtedly be centred in East Asia. That economic growth will be accompanied by a rise in the military strength of countries around the region, ushering in a more multipolar landscape. Maintaining peace and order in the region amid this shifting balance of power will require creative diplomacy to realise win–win situations for all countries under an inclusive regional order. Japan must develop a proactive diplomatic strategy to further engage with the region and deepen cooperation through such means as the East Asia Summit, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the proposed trilateral Japan–China–ROK FTA.

By adhering to these five principles, and especially by pursuing a more proactive and strategic approach to diplomacy in Asia, Japan can contribute to the creation of a more stable and peaceful regional order.

Hitoshi Tanaka is a senior fellow at Japan Centre for International Exchange (JCIE) and chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, Ltd. He previously served as Japan’s deputy minister for foreign affairs.

This article is an extract from East Asia Insights Vol. 10 No. 3 October 2015, which is available in full here, and is reprinted with the kind permission of JCIE.

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