Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.09.26

It Takes Two to Tango

JBPress on September 21, 2013

It's always great to be back in D.C., although this still is a highly political city where "ruining people is considered a sport," as an aide in the Clinton administration once wrote. In the third week of September, people here seem to have already forgotten the frenzy over Syrian chemical weapons.

Instead, Washingtonians are now paying more attention to defunding Obamacare less than two weeks before the September 30 deadline for government shutdown. Defunding national health insurance to prevent federal bankruptcy? This would not happen in Tokyo, at least for now.

Another surprise is that Starbucks now tells its customers that guns are no longer welcome in its cafes but that they can still choose to carry them! A coffee shop that used to welcome guns? This would never happen in Japan and probably not in any other East Asian nation, either.

While in D.C. it was also great to be a speaker at round tables in such think tanks as the Brookings Institution and the Stimson Center, except that participants raised questions about Japan considering exercising the right to collective self-defense under the current constitution.

That they ask these questions is quite understandable. English language media refer to the initiative to consider possibly exercising the right to collective self-defense as "one of the most radical changes to the country's postwar military."

Such reports tend to refer to the "hawkish" Japanese Prime Minister "pushing for a broader constitutional interpretation of the military's restricted mandate," and say that "asserting the right" could "worsen Japan's already prickly relations with China and South Korea."

One report from Tokyo even stated that Prime Minister Abe "has made clear that he wants to revise the postwar constitution that renounces any use of force except in direct defense of the country." With such misleading stories, no wonder opinions are divided in Washington.

Don't be misled by such articles from Tokyo. First of all, Japan is not "asserting" its right. The right to exercise collective self-defense is stipulated in the U.N. Charter and enjoyed by every member state. Japan is only deciding to exercise the same right exercised by other nations.

Countries that express concern about Japan's right to collective self-defense are ones that foresee conflict with Japan's ally, the United States. Under this right, Japan will only defend the U.S., which in turn defends its allies including the Republic of Korea.

Thus, South Korea has no reason to be concerned. Even China has nothing to worry about, unless its PLA intends to attack the United States. From the military point of view, Japan's right to collective self-defense will not worsen relations with either China or South Korea.

The issue is more political than military. Yet these constitutional amendments were not proposed by "hawkish" Prime Minister Abe, but by the ruling LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) in its 2012-2013 election manifestos. The LDP amendment draft does not revise the renouncement of war in Article 9.

The LDP's draft only establishes national defense forces which protect the peace, independence and safety of the state and its citizens. All national defense forces in the world, even those of China and the DPRK, have the same objectives.

The above Starbucks episode highlights how unique and different the United States is from other nations in the world, but America isn't the only unique country. Every nation, in one way or another, has a lot in common but also has some characteristics that are unique and different.

Japan's constitution is another example. It surely had a unique, self-constraining interpretation of the right to self-defense, but now that Japan faces an imminent physical threat from the sea, why should exercising rights which every other nation possesses be a problem?

The right to collective self-defense is only meaningful when it is applied to relationships with allies, especially when the alliance is in clear and existential danger. It takes two to tango and Japan cannot and has no intention of dancing alone in East Asia and the Western Pacific.