Four events within the span of just five months have suddenly refueled a chronic seething debate on the possibilities of the amendments in the pacifist constitution of Japan. In February, the Ukraine crisis was started, and it gave an opportunity to the pro-revisionists camp inside Japan to start talking about the need for “transformation” of national security policy. It was followed by two episodes in July: On July 8, former Premier Shinzo Abe was assassinated, and on July 10, in the parliamentary elections for the upper house, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior partner Komeito increased their combined share far beyond the simple majority. The pro-revisionist club now practically holds 179 seats in the upper chamber – much more than the 166-seat threshold needed to initiate the process of Constitutional amendment.
This is the first time since 1947, that Japan is so much near to the numerical possibility of revising its Constitution. The recently inflamed tensions across the Taiwan Strait – in the wake of Pelosi’s highly provocative trip to Taipei – has given a new impetus to pro-amendment group. The pacifist constitution of Japan, which was promulgated after the World War Two, prohibits Japan from waging a war and forbids it from maintaining “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.” This pacifism was further reinforced by the Yoshida doctrine, introduced by the first postwar Japanese Premier Shigeru Yoshida, which strongly influenced subsequent generations of the Japanese political leadership to focus on the economic development and generally refrain from militarizing. Shinzo Abe was the first Japanese Prime Minister who boastfully started talking about amending the pacifist constitution and took an aggressive step in 2016 by introducing a new security law to out-do the ban on the “right of collective self-defense” and break the restrictions on sending troops overseas which had been in place since 1945.
For a very long time, Shinzo Abe kept the “China threat” as the key plank to realign Japanese foreign policy. With a view to “counter” the growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific – his favorite term to describe the long strategic stretch from the East China Sea to the Indian Ocean, Abe aggressively engaged Japan with many regional and sub-regional security “projects” and dialogues. But, factually speaking, despite all his intense efforts, Shinzo Abe was never hopeful to achieve this main fulcrum of his doctrine in the near future.
One key factor that kept the pacifist constitution intact since 1947 without any amendment is embedded in the complicated procedure itself. To do so, more than two-thirds of lawmakers in both the upper house and the House of Representatives must vote in favor of the proposed amendments, which then need approval from a majority of voters in a national referendum. The reality is that the perpetually divided Japanese Diet never allowed any government to think about any kind of changes in the constitution because of this very reason. But, for the very first time since 1947, after the results of July 10 elections, the pro-amendment camp is in a numerical position to initiate the parliamentary discussion on this. Perhaps this numerical possibility has encouraged the right wingers in Japan to rekindle this topic with much more intensity.
The momentum and extent of this process depends upon three major factors. First factor is the public opinion, which is still clearly tilted in favor of keeping the existing constitution intact and the Opposition parties can build an anti-amendment momentum to disrupt the smooth working of Kishida, who wants smooth sailing for next three years till next elections. All the exit polls in the July elections, after the murder of Shinzo Abe, pointed out that only 5% of the participants wanted amendment in the constitution, while majority gave preference to arrest the shrinking economy.
Unlike Abe, Kishida is not a China hawk as such, and his main priority is also economy. He is not in a position to spend his energy on this matter at this time when country faces serious economic contraction. A big chunk of LDP’s core team is also not convinced with the idea of making any radical changes in the constitution in one-go. The second challenge is from the other side of the political divide that has already started its symbolic protest demonstrations inside the Diet building to preempt such move from the right-wing camp. And third – but external – factor would be the response of Washington on this matter in the long run. Ostensibly, at the moment, due to its own selfish reasons, the US is indirectly – and directly – supporting the concept of a “re-militarized” Japan with a view to counterbalance China’s growing activism in the region. By extending NATO membership to a militarized Japan in the future, some hawkish quarters in NATO are eager to create an Asian NATO to extend the tentacles of NATO to the Asia Pacific and encircle China from all sides. But a militarized Japan may prove to be a contrariwise choice for the US in the long run. Currently, under its exclusively defense-oriented policy, Japan spends 1 percent of GDP, even so, it is seventh largest military spending in the world. Similarly, the Global Firepower Index (GPI) ranked Japan fifth globally in overall military power.
If the constitution is modified and re-militarization is allowed, Japan has all the potential to turn into a menace for the region as well as Washington itself – with a tendency to break away from the influence of Washington and try to assert its own stature on global power structure. This will be certainly a dreadful scenario for the US. So, the remilitarization of Japan is fraught with many hazards that can actually altogether shake the global power equation and even create a new “threat” for Washington in the coming days.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international relations based in Karachi, Pakistan.