Abe’s Blue Beret

On Japan, its peace constitution, and how the country could take a leading role at the United Nations. By Patrick Quinton-Brown.
By: /
March 25, 2015
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MPhil (International Relations) candidate at Oxford University

Last month, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stood before his country’s legislature and, with slavering fervour, urged it to push forward with “the most drastic reforms since the end of World War II.” Included in this was a call for a “deep debate about revising the constitution.” “People of Japan,” the Prime Minister implored, “be confident!”

It was the latest appeal in the ongoing political saga around Japan’s postwar constitution. Abe has been pushing to rewrite the constitution’s ninth article, which renounces Japan’s sovereign right to wage war unless in an act of self-defense. Seizing on the tragic deaths of two Japanese hostages at the hands of the so-called Islamic State, Abe and company have presented his new term in power as a historic opportunity to change how Japan participates in world affairs.

Meanwhile, Japan’s pacifists and other concerned citizens are taking to their own podiums. Some are doing so at great personal sacrifice. Last August, hundreds watched in horror as a middle-aged man self-immolated in protest outside Tokyo’s Shinjuku station. It was not the first time a Japanese citizen suffered severe physical harm over disputes associated with Japan’s “peace constitution” and its seemingly inextricable connection to the Japanese-American military alliance. As early as 1960, a woman lost her life in a wave of street protests that rallied more than two hundred thousand civilians against the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty. To the Japanese electorate, the possible revision of “Article 9” is not a new debate. Rather, it is the continuation of a decades-old clash over the composition of Japan’s postwar national character.

Since he was first elected in December 2012 (and reelected late last year), Abe has led one side of this clash. Marred by controversy erupting from political stunts such as his infamous visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and his downplaying of war crimes committed by Imperial Japan, Abe remains a tenuous figure in Japanese politics. Controversially, he has so far averted the formal process of amending the country’s constitution by announcing a “reinterpretation” of Article 9, the arm of the document that renounces Japan’s sovereign right to wage war unless in an act of self-defense. With opposition in both chambers of Parliament, he will no doubt face significant opposition if his wish for a “deep debate about revising the constitution” comes true. But if the constitution is formally revamped, Abe’s change will unambiguously give Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF) the green light to participate in “collective self-defense” missions, which could include coming to the aid of key strategic allies and the use of coercive force in UN-approved intervention missions.

Questions regarding the democratic merits of this maneuver aside, one intriguing puzzle is how Abe has attempted to sell his idea for revision to a public predisposed to viewing Japan as a modern dove in a world of hawks. In short, his rhetoric has not been limited to self-defense. In op-eds, official statements and interviews, the Prime Minister has justified constitutional change as integral to Japan’s new role as a “proactive contributor to peace.” By revising Article 9, he suggests that Japan could increase its peacekeeping contributions, loosen its rules of engagement in civilian protection operations and ultimately serve as a model global citizen at the UN. Becoming a champion of multilateralism is a prelude to Abe’s goal of fathering Japan’s “new dawn”: the reemergence of the country as a regional powerhouse that can rise from the ashes of its ongoing economic slowdown.

Yet will revising Article 9 really make Japan a better arbiter of international peace, as some have claimed? Or will “collective self-defense” threaten the very peace such a notion would intend to protect?

The Peace Constitution

Enacted after defeat in the Second World War, Japan’s 1947 peace constitution lies at the core of its modern political culture. This is true despite the fact that it was American-written and implemented under the US occupation. Its ninth article pledged Japan to “forever renounce war as a sovereign right” and forbade Japan from maintaining an official army, navy, or air force. According to some accounts, the article also founded a pacifist foreign policy tradition that has become engrained in the Japanese public conscience. One particularly romantic strain of this argument suggests that it has kept Japan’s hands clean from interstate military conflict.

A closer look at recent history reveals a different narrative, however. While Article 9 may have encouraged Japan to adopt soft power in place of hard power, it has never stopped Japan from being dragged into war. On the contrary, Japan has served as an important military partner to Washington since 1947. The country was used as a home base for the Americans during the Korean War. During the Gulf War, Japan’s 13 billion dollar contribution to the Coalition’s intervention played a key role in thwarting Saddam Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait. Japanese troops were even sent to Iraq in 2004, where they contributed to humanitarian aid and postwar reconstruction efforts. In reality, modern Japanese military policy has been defined less by unadulterated pacifism than by Japan’s position under the broader American military umbrella.

The complexities of this security alliance must be tied to any modern analysis of Article 9. Although American occupation might have ended in 1952, the US Armed Forces still maintain a major presence in parts of Japan, especially in Okinawa. For decades this has led critics to allege Japan has succumbed to a sort of chronic state clientelism.

Abe and other conservative nationalists have long desired to escape this “subordinate” status and gain greater military independence. Their supporters agree: a fully-fledged army could restore domestic pride and, in the curious language now popular among commentators, make Japan a more “normal” country. By reinterpreting Article 9, Abe is not renouncing Japan’s alliance with the United States. Rather, he is attempting to strengthen it by making Japan a more equal military partner.

Understood as such, it is no surprise that the United States has welcomed Abe’s move as an “important step for Japan as it seeks to make a greater contribution to regional and global peace and security.” As a bulwark of defense against North Korea and China, Japan offers the Americans a foothold in the backyard of a rival superpower. At a time when the US is both financially strained and distracted by other international crises, an expansion of Japanese military capability would enable Washington to take what Bruce Bennett has called a “back seat” in policing regional tensions. The reasoning is framed by the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy, which, although poorly defined, has remained a recurring theme in American foreign policy since 2011.

Reinterpretation is therefore a smart move for Japanese-American relations. Yet Abe’s “proactive contributor to peace” sales pitch directs the spotlight elsewhere. In an attempt to win over the pacifists that comprise over half of Japan’s electorate, his rhetoric suggests that Article 9 is also a good deal for the United Nations. With a conventional army, the argument goes, Japan can contribute more effectively to peacekeeping and civilian protection operations. In doing so, Japan could heighten its international profile while taking a lead in the promotion of collective security.

It is here where Abe’s rhetoric should be exposed as effective for winning (and maintaining) nationalist votes, but stifling for those truly committed to UN-based international institutionalism.

Civilian Protection, Collective Security and Article 9

The Japanese government has long been accustomed to flexing its internationalist muscles at the UN. As the 2nd largest financial contributor to the UN’s peacekeeping budget, the country has proudly donned a blue helmet for over twenty years. Its own peacekeeping deployments have totaled over 9,000 personnel and include contributions to Cambodia, Mozambique, Golan Heights, Timor-Leste, Haiti and more. Most recently, Japan has provided over 400 blue helmets to the UN mission in South Sudan. Even without a permanent seat on the Security Council, Japan regularly finds a voice on key international crises.

Despite this long history of participation, Japanese peacekeeping continues to face operational hurdles. These problems do not hinge on the quality or quantity of Japanese peacekeepers themselves, but rather on their strict rules of engagement. Japanese peacekeeping is officially tied to five key principles, including the need for a ceasefire to be in place, consent of all conflicting parties, strict impartiality and the minimal use of weapons.

However, such restrictions can become dangerous in the heat of complex intrastate conflict. Critics for example are quick to point out their embarrassing implications for Japan’s humanitarian work in postwar Iraq, where defenseless Japanese engineers had to be rescued by armed Australian forces.

Loosening these operational restraints would make for good foreign policy. After all, past UN failures like the intervention during the Bosnian War remind us that traditional peacekeeping often fails when there is no peace to keep. In many UN missions, obstinate rules of engagement have threatened the safety of both personnel and civilians. Certainly, one avenue for Japan to “proactively contribute to peace” would be to support more flexible mandates in its civilian protection missions, such as those governing today’s UN Intervention Brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As Lisa Sharland has pointed out, a push for Japan to relax its peacekeeping restrictions could help stem the UN’s increasing demand for more qualified personnel and would be unlikely to meet regional opposition.

Yet it is not clear that the constitution must be reinterpreted for Japanese peacekeeping to become modernized. In practice, the clearest legal framework for guiding Japanese peacekeeping is the 1992 International Peace Cooperation Law, officially known as the Act on Cooperation for United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. Theoretically, if Abe is truly serious about improving Japan’s peacekeeping capabilities, he could revise the 1992 document without even touching the constitution. Proposing a replacement for the now outdated International Peace Cooperation Law offers two benefits over Abe’s constitution approach. First, it would enable Japanese parliamentarians to debate the merits of flexible peacekeeping separate from the merits of rearming the JSDF. Second, Japan’s immediate neighbours would be less suspicious of the move as a guise for nationalist militarism.

Indeed, by enflaming relations with China and North Korea, it is possible that Abe’s “collective self-defense” notion could kindle the very type of conflict that peacekeeping intends to prevent. While it is true that the region is experiencing a level of mutual interdependence, power disputes are building at the very moment that economic cooperation is deepening. Diplomatic rows over the Senkaku Islands, for example, stir distrust among government officials and risk devolving into demonstrative displays of military might. While formal military confrontation in the region is unlikely, the consequences of such tensions in the long run could be serious.

A commentary by Norihiro Kato for the New York Times captures this sentiment best. Acknowledging last year’s 100th anniversary of the First World War, he cannot help but recognize “a parallel between the positions England, Germany and France occupied a century ago — a great power, a rising power and a fading power — and those that America, China and Japan occupy today.” His chilling assessment is that the region faces a growing risk of a Sarajevo-type incident somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

It would be easy to dismiss Kato’s argument as alarmist. After all, if there exists such a risk at all, it is extremely low. Yet rearmament could damage mutual trust in the region and surely would be used by Japan’s enemies to justify their ballooning arms budgets. North Korea, for instance, hungers for new excuses that support its development of ballistic missiles and miniaturized nuclear warheads. In this sense, a mixture of fervent nationalism and diplomatic tension is not a good recipe for securing long-term regional peace.
Despite these concerns, there are worrying signals that the Japanese government will continue to take provocative military actions. Over the past year, Tokyo has authorized new National Defense Program Guidelines, established a new US-style national security council and ended the country’s decades-old ban of weapons exports. The 2014 Japanese White Paper openly accused China of taking “high-handed actions” over maritime rights and condemned the expanding missile strike capacity of North Korea.

Meanwhile, Abe’s habit of downplaying of Japan's dark wartime history adds additional oil to the fire. By presenting war crimes such as the 1937 Nanking Massacre and the “comfort women” controversy as leftist exaggerations in an unnecessarily “masochistic” retelling of history, nationalists are encouraging anti-Japanese protests like the ones that swept through dozens of Chinese cities last January.

Japan's Alternative Opportunity

While Abe’s vision of Japan as a “proactive contributor to peace” might win some political points at home, his collective self-defense concept is hardly a boon for the UN. There are better avenues for Japan to take a lead in the promotion of peace. The so-called “preventative” dimension of the UN’s growing human rights infrastructure is one such avenue.

In an age in which international intervention to halt even the most heinous of crimes is halted by Security Council vetoes, it is worth asking how conflict can be mitigated before erupting into fully-fledged war. Prevention provides a possible answer to this by exploring how state and non-state actors, working in tandem, can build institutional capacities that snuff out conflict before it emerges into crisis.

Japan is uniquely well suited to take up this mantle. First, Japan has been a pioneer on the related concept of human security, seeing as it sponsored the Commission on Human Security and has long served as a major donor to the UN Trust Fund for Human Security. Former Japanese diplomat Sadako Ogata has even been called the “mother” of human security. Next, Japan is a reliable supporter of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) principle. In paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 UN World Summit Outcome, 191 heads of state affirmed that each individual State has the responsibility to protect its people from mass atrocities. In addition to supporting the World Summit Outcome, Japan has served as a constructive participant in the UN General Assembly’s annual interactive dialogue on R2P.

The people-centred concept of human security describes the universal right of people to live in freedom and dignity, holding that security is no longer simply the purview of nation states. One method of imagining this freedom is to break it down into two core components: “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want”. On the one hand, the narrower freedom from fear concept describes the need to protecting individuals from violence and impending mass atrocities. Freedom from want takes a more holistic approach to include the threats of hunger, disease and natural disasters. In essence, it suggests a need to address the root causes of structural violence and to empower local communities. Japan has especially emphasized the broader “freedom from want” concept in its human security work.

R2P shares some common elements with human security, but has stricter criteria for implementation and limits its focus to protecting populations from four mass atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. As outlined in the UN Secretary-General’s 2009 report Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, it is based on a three-pillar approach to organize effective response. Its first pillar outlines that protecting civilians from mass atrocities is each state’s sovereign responsibility. Pillar two describes the wider international community’s responsibility to assist individual states in protecting their people. The third pillar proposes that if a state is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take appropriate collective action by diplomatic, economic and if necessary, military means. The pillars are non-sequential and of equal importance, though the UN’s preventative efforts could be categorized as part of the concept’s second pillar.

It is at the intersection between human security and R2P that Japan may be able to provide a way forward for peace. While the concepts are separate and different, their synchronization could prove complementary to prevention. As Vesselin Popovski has noted, while discussion of pillar 2 has tended to be “top down,” the human security approach pursued by Japan seeks to secure peace through a “bottom up” method that empowers individual and local community capacity building. In building a comprehensive toolbox to protect civilians, it may be necessary to integrate Pillar 2’s focus on assisting and enhancing state institutions with the innovative, community-based activities encapsulated in Japan’s work on human security. With its extensive intellectual and diplomatic capital, Japan can invest efforts into prevention and start building a legacy at UN – without reforming the JSDF.

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

Now, more than ever, is it a good time for Japan to seize this opportunity. As we witness increasing divergence on the question of crisis reaction, UN Security Council debate sees increasing convergence on the question of crisis prevention. In August, the Secretary-General released his annual report on R2P focused on the principle’s international assistance pillar, which will be discussed at the end of the month during the UN General Assembly’s annual interactive dialogue on R2P. Moreover, the need for comprehensive prevention will also become a formative talking point amongst the UN administration over the coming year, with 2015 being the target date for the organization’s new Development Agenda. Finally, timely and comprehensive prevention is in line with the Rights Up Front Action Plan.

Far from being an abstract or airy notion, prevention is a solid investment that yields real and well-documented gains. It is far more expensive, for example, to respond once a crisis occurs than to invest in extinguishing societal tensions beforehand. Few would deny that even as a last resort, with proportionate means, reasonable prospects for success and a just cause, military intervention can easily get out of hand. In cases in which coercive force appears necessary, there is also fear of mission creep and collateral damage.

To make matters worse, fully blown crises can generate social and economic devastation in affected countries and their regional neighbours. If properly conceived and consistently executed, international assistance reinforces the efforts that states are already making to protect civilians while at the same time reducing the likelihood of collective response by the international community under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Nor is prevention a case of Japan biting off more than it can chew. The forms of international assistance to secure the safety of civilians from conflict can be organized by a division of labour across multiple sectors. Actors who have a role to play in implementing effective prevention include international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank, as well as states, regional organizations and NGOs. According to the Secretary-General, various actors may take the lead in certain situations, based on proximity, trust, legitimacy and available capacity.

Without bearing too much weight on its other foreign policy priorities, Japan can carry the prevention banner in at least three different ways. First, it can enhance capacity building to in the physical, socio-economical, and legal protection of civilians. For example, Japan can become an international model of an accountable domestic security sector through the provision of materials, training and advice. Next, it can deploy a more specialized civilian capacity when states are under stress of imminent crisis. This includes investing more in the recruitment, training and deployment of technical experts who can participate in human rights monitoring and international criminal investigation. Finally, Japan can take a lead in guiding discussion on early warning for potential atrocity planning, which includes questions of hate speech and historical grievances, and how to address such signals. Low economic development as a threat to peace is a controversial but important puzzle on this front. Japan, as one of the world’s most generous developmental aid donors, would be an ideal actor to propose solutions to this question in a productive and diplomatic manner.

Japan's Leadership Opportunity

The recent reinterpretation of Article 9 has been portrayed as “active pacifism” and an integral step in making Japan a defender of international peace. “Collective self-defense,” however, is hardly the sort of blue-helmet affair that its supporters may suggest. To put it one way, active pacifism could prove indistinguishable from inactive militarism. If Japan really wants to serve as a “proactive contributor to peace”, then it should do so through renewed leadership in the preventative dimension of the global security infrastructure.

By synchronizing human security policies with R2P’s second pillar, Tokyo can win a legacy at the UN that meaningfully extends and enhances the dignity of innocent civilians. Investment in prevention policy research, combined with deeper institutional engagement on the plight of innocent civilians, positions Japan to demand a greater voice in related international organizations. Many in Canada, especially those of us who remain nostalgic for serious Canadian efforts in multilateral diplomacy, would welcome such leadership.