My Take

Shinzo Abe's moves on Japan's pacifist constitution deserve greater attention

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 February, 2014, 4:22am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 February, 2014, 4:22am

Anti-China sentiments seem to have blinded many people in Asia, including quite a collection in Hong Kong, to the dangers of nationalistic Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe's attempt to overcome the pacifist provision in his country's constitution. He is contributing not only to a potential arms race in Asia, but also threatening democratic constitutionalism in his own country.

Article 9 of the constitution says: "Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, 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. (2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognised."

"Forever" seems to be much shorter than what the word usually means. Abe now wants to pass a law that would allow Japan to commit its troops offensively, either by themselves or in concert with allies. The constitution clearly prohibits that, and only allows defensive actions.

To be sure, Japan already has a large and modern military, but its primary posture is one of defence. After years of budget cuts, Abe has moved to boost defence spending and transform its military. But there is a wide consensus among legal experts and the Japanese public that the pacifist article should be changed only through a formal amendment. By trying to push for a new law, he is either circumventing or even subverting the constitutional process.

Abe has countered that if the public don't like his idea, they can always punish him at the next election. He is being disingenuous. Proper constitutionalism requires parliamentary procedures such as securing two-thirds majority support for an amendment, a bar that may be set too high for Abe in this case.

Whether or not you believe Japan should play a bigger military role in Asia and the rest of the world and or that China's military modernisation and recent foreign policy have been too provocative, Abe's unilateralism in rewriting his country's constitution should alarm not only Japan's neighbours, but also its citizens.