Busy 2019 calendar and inadequate popular support may thwart Japan PM’s goal to amend pacifist constitution
On May 3, Japan observed the 71st anniversary of its constitution taking effect. A Kyodo News opinion poll in the country showed that 61 percent of the survey respondents opposed any constitutional revisions under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, compared with 38 percent in favor.
The survey also found that 58 percent of the respondents considered constitutional amendment in the future “necessary” or “somewhat necessary”, versus 39 percent who saw no such need.
On May 3, 2017, Abe called for clarifying the legal status of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in the constitution, arguing that the lack of reference to Japanese armed troops in the supreme law leaves room for them to be viewed as “unconstitutional”.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has adopted Abe’s proposal. The party wants to add a clause stating that the SDF exists to preserve Japan’s peace and independence, and preserve the safety of the country and its people, while maintaining the second paragraph of Article 9 which states that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained”.
In order to preserve consistency with the second paragraph of Article 9, the Japanese government has defined the SDF as an organization with strength “below war potential”. The LDP backed this up with an initial proposal to adopt the phrase, “an armed organization with minimum necessary strength”.
But the LDP’s new proposal has made this restriction vague. Under its proposal, if the government deemed it “necessary”, the new paragraph would be grounds to greatly expand the forces’ scope of activities and equipment. One could even read into the amendment the full-scale application of collective self-defense.
Still, Japan is trying to build its offensive capabilities.
Japan’s defense ministry commissioned a study into the possible conversion of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Izumo helicopter carrier into a full-fledged aircraft carrier in case Japan was required to provide rear-line support for a US-led war.
Japan Marine United Corp, the Tokyo-based company that built the vessel, has been asked to provide estimates for the cost and construction schedule if changes were made to allow US F-35B stealth fighter jets to land vertically on the deck and to use elevators to transport aircraft to their hangars.
Abe has adopted a policy that Japanese forces could be utilized to provide support to the US military during situations where Japan’s survival is threatened or situations that would harm its interests.
To reduce the US trade deficit with Japan, US President Donald Trump is pushing Japan to buy more US-made weapons.
The US “supports Japan’s efforts to improve its defense capabilities, and we’re exploring ways to expedite the sale of American military equipment to Japan”, Trump told a joint news conference with Abe in April.
Both the US and Japan stand to benefit from more weapons sales, and military equipment is far pricier on a piece-by-piece basis than ordinary goods. For example, one F-35A stealth fighter costs Japan around US$140 million.
Japan already plans to purchase 42 of the advanced aircraft, and Trump seems to expect it will buy even more, helping bring trade into balance. Japan also plans to install two Aegis Ashore missile defense systems costing around US$1 billion each, according to the Nikkei Asian Review.
US defense contractor Lockheed Martin plans to offer Japan a stealth fighter design based on its export-banned F-22 Raptor and advanced F-35 Lightning II aircraft.
The proposed aircraft “would combine the F-22 and F-35 and could be superior to both of them”.
Japan, which is already buying the radar-evading F-35 to modernize its inventory, also wants to introduce a separate air superiority fighter in the decade starting 2030 to deter “intrusions” into its airspace by Chinese and Russian jets.
Although the Japanese stealth aircraft program, dubbed the F-3, was conceived as a domestic effort estimated to cost around 4.3 trillion yen (US$39 billion), Japan has recently sought international collaboration to share the expense and gain access to technology it would otherwise have to develop from scratch.
Forces in favor of amending the constitution currently have the two-thirds majority in both houses of Japan’s parliament, or the Diet. Such an advantage for revising the constitution may change.
The election of the upper house is to take place in the summer of 2019, when half of its 242 seats will be in contest. Currently the LDP, Komeito and two small parties that favor constitutional revision hold the necessary two-thirds majority in the upper house. Sixty-nine seats held by LDP members will be up for grabs.
Unless the party wins something close to this number, the two-thirds edge may be lost. But garnering a number of seats in the mid-60s range will be no easy task for the LDP, which won only 55 in the most recent upper house ballot held in 2016. With this in mind, Abe may well push to get a set of amendments approved by the Diet before the summer 2019 election.
The calendar for 2019 is so loaded with events that Abe may find little time for his constitutional amendment project.
Next year, Japan will have the ceremonies accompanying the abdication of the current Emperor Akihito and enthronement of his successor Naruhito. Japan will host the G20 leaders’ summit and the Tokyo International Conference on African Development. It will also host the Rugby World Cup.
Abe wants the amended constitution to be adopted in 2020. However, he will likely find it difficult to set the date for a national referendum.
Opinion polls show no clear rise in popular support for constitutional revision. So even if a set of amendments is approved by the Diet, it is not certain that they will be ratified in the referendum.
The author is China Daily’s bureau chief in Tokyo.