At a Tuesday press conference Foreign Minister Maehara proposed (jp) setting up a vice-ministerial level government-wide consultative body to discuss the dispatch of SDF forces overseas and also the relaxation of the rules on the use of weapons (武器使用基準の緩和) during UN-mandated Peace Keeping Operations. Defense Minister Kitazawa on the sameday also stated that “undoubtedly” there will be more calls for Japan to dispatch SDF forces overseas and that it is time for Japan to think seriously about Japan’s ongoing orientation in this regard.
The main concern in regards to the use of weapons is that Japanese forces are unable to defend troops from other countries in the case of attack by hostile forces during UN PKO missions. This is something Maehara in particular has been consistently emphasizing the (il)logic of since the DPJ was in opposition. According the article the new body will be set up mid-October, and will look at past dispatches of the SDF and consider the way forward.
I suspect that the way forward is probably pointing towards implementing a permanent law on the dispatch of SDF forces which would likely also contain an expansion of SDF activities, something that the LDP raised itself earlier this year. This would be a “general measures law” that would mean much less need for the Diet to issue and deliberate on special measures laws anytime the SDF might be involved in a security contingency. It also comes on the back of recent developments such as the report back of the PM’s Council for National Security and Defense Buildup in the New Era, the proposal for a Japanese amphibious force, discussion around joint-basing, and the MOD’s annual white paper on defense. These all point towards a very interesting National Defense Program Guidelines to be published at the end of the year and a reasonably radical revision in the Basic Defense Force Concept in the near future. That US-Japan relations seem at least rhetorically more stable now, despite the ongoing and intractable problems around the relocation of Futenma, will only help this process.
This is all pointing towards a medium-term institutionalization of Japan’s security policy to allow it to meet some of the most pressing security concerns it will have to face up to in the short to medium term, but doing so in a way that will not undermine its ability to adapt to rapid changes in global geo-politics in the long-term. It seems to me like a clear signal that there is no interest in constitutional change in the DPJ for the time being but also that the DPJ understands the need to evolve Japan’s security policy without overreacting to external events.
It probably also contains a political element – as I argued early on this year the LDP might be looking to focus and distinguish its party identity by emphasizing security issues. Given the rhetoric emanating from the party after the recent Senkaku dispute, and the recent promotions of the likes of Koike and Ishiba within the party leadership apparatus, this gives credence to my argument. At this point in time the LDP still seems to lack any convincing social or economic program and clearly is not doing too well in its attempt to reconstruct itself as party of probity and competence (that they thought they could shows an amazing cognitive dissonance). I suspect the DPJ can rebuff many criticisms of being soft on defense and security while effectively forcing the LDP to take more extreme positions on Japan’s security disposition, such as strongly embracing the right to collective self-defense and constitutional revision. I would not rule out the public being open to either of these at some point in time – but there is much risk in proposing strong and decisive changes to the political and constitutional fabric of Japan’s orientation to the world without a plan to deal with the structural issues that assail Japanese society and economy domestically.
The lack of public concern at these significant but not necessarily bombastic changes should be noted. With the DPJ essentially paying little attention to constitutional changes, and with the DPJ outright ruling out changes to the three non-nuclear principles, (and saying not too much on collective self-defense) it seems to have found the appropriate discursive range for strategic conversation that would not set off other wider ranging discussions that could complicate the evolution of Japanese security policy. The DPJ seems to understand that now is not the appropriate time to move a more radical conversation on Japan’s future security policy and foreign policy identity into the public realm – more pressing domestic questions on Japanese society, economy and the Japanese polity itself need to be addressed first – questions that could have constitutional significance in themselves and deserve to be considered with the same degree of attention as is often given to Article 9 in elite circles.