Led by Abe, Japan turns its back on a ground-breaking path of renunciation
Kevin Rafferty says the constitutional reinterpretation extending its military reach is disappointing
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was as good as his word and has pushed through a controversial "reinterpretation" of Japan's so-called peace constitution without the bother of having to amend it. Once relevant laws are changed, Japan's military forces will be able to go to the aid of allies even when Japan itself is not under attack.
The decision and the way it was accomplished sets a terrible precedent and could come back to haunt Japan.
Reactions have been predictable. Abe's ruling camp is smug: we did what we promised.
The US patted Abe on the back in approval. Sheila Smith, of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that Washington policymakers regarded the move as "long overdue". China howled in protest, warning of a resurgence of Japanese militarism. South Korea also voiced unhappiness about a "serious alteration" of Japan's pacifist policy.
On the surface, little has changed. Abe promised that Japan is still a peace-loving nation. "We shall never repeat the horror of war … It will never happen that Japan again becomes a country which goes to war."
As others have pointed out, collective self-defence is a right granted under Article 51 of the United Nations charter. Most other countries, from Denmark to New Zealand, enjoy the same right without ever being accused of being warmongers.
Japan has long pretended only to have "self-defence forces" and limits its military spending to 1 per cent of gross domestic product. Even so, total spending of about US$50 billion a year on the military puts Japan in the world's top eight military powers. China is still far ahead, second only to the US.
Even so, China is a big country with long land and sea borders. Most defence analysts believe that if push came to shove and China and Japan fought, then the more sophisticated, probably better trained, Japanese forces would at least give China a bloody nose.
So what's the beef? Japan has long in practice ignored the second part of the famous Article 9 of the constitution that "land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained" in that its "Self-Defence Forces" are more than a match for other armies.
What is left is the first part of Article 9 that the "Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes". How can this be so when Japan has pledged under Abe to come to the aid of another country when Japan itself is not threatened?
There are many problems in the way that the reinterpretation of the constitution was accomplished. Essentially, Abe and his coterie decided that this was what they wanted to do, and they did it in the face of popular opposition - recent polls show that about 55 per cent of Japanese are against getting rid of Article 9, and about 34 per cent are in favour.
A constitution is supposedly the most sacred law of a country. It should concern the Americans, not least because they gave Japan its postwar constitution and their own constitution is notoriously difficult to amend.
So the reaction in Washington - about time for Japan to become a normal nation - is dangerously hypocritical. Smith noted that, "It is in the interest of the United States to ensure that any changes that Abe makes are fully supported by the Japanese people. Otherwise, any decision on collective self-defence would undermine confidence in the alliance if it was perceived as appeasing Washington rather than serving Japan's own interests."
Under the new rules, the Abe government has proposed three conditions for going to the aid of another country under attack. The attack would have to pose a danger to Japan's own survival; there would have to be no other way of repelling it and protecting Japan; and the force would be the minimum necessary.
But the problem is that it is the government that interprets whether the conditions are met, and who can trust a government that has used a side door to circumvent the constitution?
Below this there are dangerous disconnects. One is Abe's personality. In public, he has been keen to observe the niceties and had talked eloquently of Japan's peaceful post-war rise. But in a private party meeting, he told officials that collective self-defence was the same kind of seismic shift as the Meiji Restoration, which led to Japan becoming a modern nation, and an industrial and military power with imperial ambitions. Abe still reveres the memory of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, a leading politician in pre- and post-war Japan.
Abe has an unfortunate tendency to shoot from the hip, to see an opportunity and go for it without fully considering the consequences. Last week, he upset South Korea by relaxing some sanctions on North Korea.
In these tempestuous times of the rise of China and turmoil in the China seas, it was inevitable that Japan would seek to become a "normal" nation again and make military alliances. But this is still following a dangerous conventional route. It was a dream that a war-renouncing nation might try to seek another way, but Abe is not the man to pursue that dream.
Kevin Rafferty is the author of Inside Japan's Power Houses, a study of Japan Inc