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The rights of the right as Abe strives for collective self-defence

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In Brief

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are negotiating with their coalition partner, Komeito, to introduce legislation recognising a limited exercise of collective self-defence. There is rising anxiety about how this endeavour is perceived by Japan’s neighbours and what effect this will have on regional stability, given the Abe cabinet’s right-wing revisionist views of Japan’s history.


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At face value, the exercise of collective self-defence (the use of force to come to the aid of an ally under attack) and historical revisionism may appear to be unrelated issues. But for Japan they are linked insofar as any Japanese government actions or statements that are perceived by its neighbours as whitewashing or denying the country’s wartime transgressions cast doubt on the government’s ultimate intentions about the character of Japan’s defence policy. This is particularly so when those changes will expand the roles and functions of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF). In this context, the historical revisionism of the Abe cabinet risks exacerbating the security dilemma in East Asia.

For countries such as the United States and Australia — which are eager to bolster their defence cooperation with Japan and encourage the SDF to increase its security burden-sharing roles — the situation raises a number of questions. How can the Abe cabinet be persuaded to dissociate itself from the historical revisionism that fuels regional distrust? And how can it be encouraged to engage in more active diplomacy to reassure China and South Korea that legitimate and limited upgrades of Japan’s defence policy will not encroach upon their security?

Mainstream public opinion in Japan recognises that the country’s wartime military did inflict grave wrongdoings and supports the apologies for wartime conduct. But, under the Abe government, right-wing revisionists continue to be significant because of the sympathy for their views among the cabinet.

Almost half of the current Abe cabinet are members of the Association of Diet Members for Worshipping at Yasukuni Shrine Together, while another three have during their time as ministers made visits to the contentious shrine where the souls of 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined. Abe himself controversially visited Yasukuni on 26 December 2013, provoking criticism not only from China and South Korea, but also from the US which noted it was ‘disappointed’ by the move which will ‘exacerbate tensions’ with Japan’s neighbours.

More than three quarters of Abe’s cabinet are also members of Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference): a grassroots organisation aimed at restoring a ‘beautiful Japan’ with a new constitution for a new era. Behind the flowery language, their view of history contends that Japanese war crimes, such as the Nanjing massacre, were exaggerated or fabricated. It also argues that Japan was liberating East Asia from Western colonialism and denies that the Japanese wartime military forcibly recruited ‘comfort women’. Their vision of a ‘correct’ Japan appears to see collective self-defence as a stepping stone to abolishing the Article 9 ‘peace clause’ of Japan’s Constitution.

The dominant revisionist views of the Abe cabinet have come to the fore recently with the kerfuffle surrounding Japanese demands to revise references to ‘comfort women’ in an American history textbook, and in Abe’s comments that Class-A war criminals are not criminals under Japanese law and that academics have yet to agree on the definition of ‘aggression’.

The questions of Japan’s right to exercise collective self-defence under international law, and the potential security benefits to Japan from passing legislation allowing collective self-defence under Japanese law, are in principle separate issues.

Collective self-defence would increase the deterrence capabilities of the US–Japan alliance. Without the right to exercise collective self-defence, Japan is not, for instance, permitted to shoot down a North Korean missile heading for the US. A limited exercise of collective self-defence to deal with such scenarios will help Japan to meet the demands of the contemporary security environment.

In terms of international law, Japan is well within its rights to exercise collective self-defence. It is a right that is guaranteed to all sovereign states under the UN charter and is the basis of NATO security, which deems an attack against one member-state to be an attack against all.

But any increased deterrence power that comes from Japan recognising the right to collective self-defence is highly likely to be offset when implemented by a government that is also espousing revisionist views of history. Irrespective of Japan’s democratic institutions and the brake applied on the LDP by its coalition partner, Komeito, and mainstream public opinion, any moves to reinterpret Article 9 by a government associated with historical revisionist views will fuel distrust of Japan. China and South Korea perceive this historical revisionism as evidence that Japan has neither faced up to nor regrets its wartime transgressions and that collective self-defence will be used as a stepping stone to further defence reforms that will negatively impinge on their own security.

Ultimately, therefore, this scenario risks undermining security in the region as China and South Korea may take countermeasures to bolster their security vis-a-vis Japan if they perceive Japan to be an increased threat. This, in turn, risks spiralling tensions and an arms race. Frictions over disputed territories could turn violent, tentative moves to repair Sino–Japanese relations could be undone, and hopes of promoting defence cooperation between Japan and South Korea as common US allies will be further complicated.

The US must be seen by all across Northeast Asia as seriously protesting against any revisionist views of history in the Abe cabinet. This is necessary to prevent Japanese politicians who advocate historical revisionism being further empowered, and to maintain America’s strong cooperation with China and South Korea.

Abe faces two key tests in the coming months: a speech in late April to the US Congress and a speech on 15 August to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. If in these speeches he unequivocally recognises the entire Murayama Statement — Japan’s 1995 apology to its Asian neighbours for harm caused during the war — Abe can create a platform to begin to dissociate his cabinet from historical revisionism. This will help him to realise the exercise of collective self-defence in a manner consistent with his proclaimed desire for Japan to make active contributions to peace and regional stability.

At the same time, a gradual expansion of the SDF’s roles and functions through collective self-defence, focused on maximising Japan’s security and bolstering the US–Japan alliance’s deterrence power, will serve to strengthen regional stability. But it will do so only if it is coupled with diplomacy to reassure Japan’s neighbours and is purged of links to revisionism.

A legal basis for implementing collective self-defence should sensibly be built upon the foundation of the exclusively defence-oriented security policy framework that has served Japan so well in the 70 years since World War II and has been a force for peace in the region.

Ben Ascione is a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. He is Japan and Korea editor at East Asia Forum and a research associate of the Japan Center for International Exchange in Tokyo.

An extended version of this article appeared in the recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asia’s Minorities’.

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