Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.02.18

Defending against the coronavirus

the japan times on 4 February, 2020

The outbreak of a new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, seems to be unstoppable. On Sunday, the first known corona virus death outside of China was finally reported, in the Philippines. The death toll in China has risen to over 300 in the past two weeks.

While the number of people infected with the virus has gradually increased in Japan, it took the government three weeks to ban the entry of foreign nationals who have been in China's Hubei province in the last two weeks. It was only last Saturday that Tokyo finally introduced mandatory hospitalizations for those infected with the virus, with possible penalties for those who do not obey these instructions. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized that "Precedented measures cannot deal with unprecedented crises." As always, better late than never.

A few days before this unprecedented decision by the Abe administration to prevent an outbreak of the virus in Japan, however, it was badly defeated in its attempt to deploy the Aegis Ashore, the land-based version of the U.S. Navy's Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, in Akita Prefecture.

The governor and the mayor of Akita formally informed the defense minister that they adamantly reject the government's plan to deploy Aegis Ashore at a planned site in Akita. Unfortunately, the national government cannot take mandatory measures to implement the plan in Akita.

But if it can do so for health reasons, why not for defense purposes? Isn't the coronavirus outbreak in East Asia a national emergency and doesn't it pose a serious external threat to Japan? Likewise, don't the hundreds of foreign spies that covertly active in Japan also pose external threat to Japan? And don't the nuclear-armed mid-range ballistic missiles targeting Japan also pose a serious external threat? Of course, they do.

In that case, why can't the government take mandatory measures for national security when it can do so for the coronavirus? Is it because the government has an appropriate statute to enforce mandatory measures for infectious diseases, while it has no authority to impose the deployment of defense systems inside Japan?

Let's set things straight again. Noah built his ark before the flood came. It would have been too late to start building it when he saw the flood coming. In a nutshell, it has been and will always be up to the will of the top decision-makers to do the right things to prepare for emergencies. The following is my take.

1. It's about the will of policymakers, not statutes

The United States announced on Friday that it has temporarily banned "foreign nationals who have traveled to China in the last two weeks and aren't immediate family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents." Australia has introduced similar strict measures.

Japan, in contrast, so far has only banned foreigners wishing to enter Japan who have been in China's Hubei province in the last two weeks. China's foreign ministry called the U.S. decision "certainly not a gesture of goodwill," but is the U.S. move overly offensive vis-a-vis Beijing? I don't think so.

2. It's about threat assessment

Given the tendency of Chinese officials to hide the real numbers of the dead and infected, we must always prepare ourselves for worst-case scenarios. The government should not hesitate to take strong measures in the event of national emergencies even if it means limiting some human rights.

This may also apply to other national emergencies such as foreign espionage or a direct military threat. It's a well-known fact that at least hundreds of foreign spies and intelligence agents are free to do what they want in Japan.

Moreover, the North Koreans are still developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction while they continue to modernize conventional weapon systems that do not fall into the categories of intercontinental ballistic missiles that U.S. President Donald Trump claims North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised not to test. The threats are real.

3. If there is no statute, enact one

Some may argue that the government lacks statutes to impose its deployment plans for national defense onto local authorities such as those in Akita. The government cannot arrest and charge over espionage hundreds of foreign agents for collecting classified materials in Japan.

This, however, is an argument that puts the cart before the horse. If the appropriate statutes to do the right things don't exist, then new laws should be enacted. For example, an anti-espionage law and a national security emergency law are needed.

All in all, the bottom line is to strike a balance between individual rights and collective national interests. Before Saturday, the government could not or would not take mandatory measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Japan because of human rights concerns as there were no precedents to limit such individual rights.

Now, however, it is becoming clearer that stricter and more forceful measures are necessary to prevent the coronavirus from spreading in Japan. If the disease poses a threat to the nation, so does foreign espionage and the ballistic missiles aimed at it.

Of course, individual freedom and human rights are always important. Sometimes, however -- and especially in the event of an emergency -- certain strong mandatory but temporary measures are needed to protect the collective interests of a democracy.

It is not only a golden opportunity but also high time for Japan to look back on the past 70 years and to seriously contemplate the optimum balance between individual human rights and the collective national interest. Our democracy in the 21st century is strong and healthy enough to find a new equilibrium.