Japan: Abe's constitutional and security agenda

Published Monday, March 2, 2015

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (the LDP) won a decisive victory in snap elections held in December 2014. One of the reasons for holding early elections was Abe’s desire to amend Japan’s ‘peace Constitution’ so that in future it expressly permits the country’s armed forces to come to the aid of allies under attack. This is known in Japan as the right of ‘collective self-defence’. In mid- 2014 the Japanese Cabinet approved interpreting the Constitution in this way. Abe is now seeking to give this new interpretation legal and constitutional underpinning. Important as it is, amending Article 9 of the Constitution is just one part of Abe’s plans on the defence and security front. Japan is now looking to enhance its defence capabilities so that it can play a greater role in promoting international “peace, stability and prosperity”. It will also increase its ability to respond effectively to any attack on the Senkaku Islands (as Japan calls them) in the East China Sea.

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (the LDP) won a decisive victory in snap elections held in December 2014. Along with its ally, the Komeito party, the LDP now has a two-thirds majority in the lower house, the House of Representatives (Diet), and a majority in the upper house, the House of Councillors.

One of the reasons for holding early elections was Abe’s desire to amend Japan’s ‘peace Constitution’ so that in future it expressly permits the country’s armed forces to come to the aid of allies under attack. This is known in Japan as the right of ‘collective self-defence’.

In mid- 2014 the Japanese Cabinet approved interpreting the Constitution in this way. Abe is now seeking to give this new interpretation legal and constitutional underpinning.

However, for the Constitution to be amended, new legislation must be passed by a two-thirds majority in both houses and a majority of the people must give approval in a national referendum. With many ordinary Japanese as yet unpersuaded, this remains a major challenge. Nonetheless, the new government hopes to have the legislation passed by the end of June 2015, with the referendum potentially happening in the summer of 2016.

Important as it is, amending Article 9 of the Constitution is just one part of Abe’s plans on the defence and security front. Japan is now looking to enhance its defence capabilities so that it can play a greater role in promoting international “peace, stability and prosperity”.

But it will also increase its ability to respond effectively to any attack on the Senkaku Islands (as Japan calls them) in the East China Sea. Over the last five years Japan has viewed changes in the Asia-Pacific security environment with increasing unease. Tensions with China, which also claims sovereignty over these islands, have risen markedly in recent years, although there are efforts under way to establish a ‘crisis management mechanism’.

Although the US is committed to come to the support of Japan in the event of an armed attack on the islands, there is some anxiety in Tokyo over the extent of US commitment to its alliance with Japan.

Later this year, China will also be scrutinising carefully the precise wording of Prime Minister Abe’s apology for Japan’s wartime aggression, whose text is being drafted now, when it is made on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Overseas aid is set to be linked more to Japan’s defence and security priorities in future. Policy has been changed to allow Japan to use its Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) to fund foreign military forces, provided that the funds are used for non-military purposes. Critics question how far Japan will be able to avoid such funds being diverted to military purposes.

Commons Briefing papers SN07115

Authors: Jon Lunn; Claire Mills

Topics: Asia, Constitution, Defence expenditure, Defence policy, International politics and government

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