An Offensive Shift? Don’t Overestimate Japan’s New Guidelines

Since the implementation of the U.S.-written Constitution, Article IX has imposed a self-defense requirement on Japan’s armed forces. While this constraint has been relaxed to some extent over time (which has led to debates and near crises at times), the fundamental principle of self-defense as the mainstay of Japanese military policy has remained fairly constant. But Japan’s government has recently announced a change to their military policy, one that represents an important but tempered shift.

The exact terms of this shift are still in flux, but the basics of it are simple: where Japan’s military was previously only allowed to respond, measure for measure, to the offensive actions of another state, new guidelines currently being compiled will allow Japan to expand the scope of operations in order to proactively defend itself, as Kirk Spitzer writes here. This means that Japan now has the capability to escalate conflict in a way that was not previously available, though it is still incapable of directly starting it (though indirect action, through movements toward the Dokdo/Takeshima or Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, for example, remain a viable possibility). If Japan is attacked, rather than simply counterattacking the forces that initiated the conflict, Japanese forces will be able to expand the scope of the conflict, striking missile bases, ports, or other viable military targets.

While not going so far as to represent a full-on preemptive capability (which appears as if it would still be restricted under these revisions to military guidelines), this does open up a new range of options for the Japanese Self-Defense Force should they find themselves under attack. But it is important to not overstate the importance of these changes, as I am concerned that Spitzer does in his article. Whereas his own language states that this change will “allow Japan’s armed forces, for the first time, to develop offensive capability, and to strike first if an attack appears imminent…,” he quotes Narushige Michishita: “What they are basically saying is, ‘When a potential enemy has started attacking us, then we would start offensive operations to take out their missiles, as well as their missile bases.” There is an important and wide gulf between these two positions. For the time being at least, Japan still finds itself constitutionally constrained in a very significant way, one that removes a potentially enormous strategic advantage, in the form of preemptive strikes, that could be very useful should Japanese relations with China or either of the Koreas actually come to blows.

There is an important trade-off here that should be considered: while Japan is unable to preemptively strike a clear and present threat, by not enabling the Japanese military to attack first also creates an important degree of certainty for those that find themselves in a potential conflict with Japan, knowing that since Japan will not escalate it would fall to the other state to do so. In theory, this should stabilize relations and help prevent tensions from boiling over, a valuable factor that should not be overlooked. At the same time, however, if another state cares enough about whatever is at stake (such as the aforementioned islands), then this one-sided restraint will not be enough to prevent a high-intensity conflict or war.

Admittedly, at the end of the day, Japan’s Article IX is only as good as the paper it’s written on. Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has certainly shown an interest in undercutting, if not eliminating, the constitutional constraint, and this is a step in that direction. But for the time being this action should not have the effect of any significant destabilization of Japanese relations with other states, and only time will tell if the LDP continues in this direction and whether further changes would lead to a deterioration of peace in Northeast Asia.

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