Published: 16:53, May 9, 2023 | Updated: 18:01, May 9, 2023
Japan speeds up efforts to fulfill military ambitions
By Cai Hong

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a joint press conference with the Republic of Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol after their meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on May 7, 2023. (PHOTO / POOL / AFP)

Japan is accelerating efforts to fulfill its military ambitions by amending its Constitution and increasing engagement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida expressed hope for a revision of the country's Constitution in a video message sent to a forum in Tokyo hosted by groups that support constitutional changes, the newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported.

"It is more important than ever to further heighten momentum toward constitutional revision," Kishida said in the message on May 3, Japan's Constitution Memorial Day. "A stance for revising parts of the Constitution that are out of step with the times is required."

He referred to the security environment that Japan faces as "the most severe and complex", saying it is extremely important to position the Self-Defense Forces, Japan's de facto military forces, in the Constitution.

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Article 9 of the Constitution renounces war and prohibits Japan from maintaining "war potential", banning the country from maintaining land, sea or air forces.

Before holding a national referendum on revising the Constitution, a draft bill for a constitutional amendment must be initiated by the Diet and obtain a majority vote in the Commission on the Constitution in both houses of the Diet, Japan's parliament, followed by a two-thirds majority vote at the plenary session of both houses

The nation's exclusively defense-oriented principles are built on the idea of developing defensive capabilities, while being consistent with the Constitution's pacifist principles, the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun said in an editorial.

Since the second administration of the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which started in December 2012, Japan has been preparing to rewrite its Constitution.

Late last year, Kishida's Cabinet approved revisions to three national security documents, which specify Japan's acquisition of "counterstrike capabilities" to attack enemy bases. The Kishida administration intends to raise defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2027, equating to a 60 percent increase over five years. This would give the country the third-largest defense budget in the world.

The increase is a major turnaround from Japan's post-World War II security policy and transforms its defense-oriented principles, the Mainichi Shimbun said.

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The newspaper urged Japan to draw up a strategy that avoids being left at the mercy of the escalating United States-China confrontation. "While the Japan-US alliance remains the axis of Japan's foreign policy, Tokyo's relations with China are vital on the economic and other fronts," it said.

Kishida has vowed to revise the Constitution before his current term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party expires in September 2024.

Before holding a national referendum on revising the Constitution, a draft bill for a constitutional amendment must be initiated by the Diet and obtain a majority vote in the Commission on the Constitution in both houses of the Diet, Japan's parliament, followed by a two-thirds majority vote at the plenary session of both houses.

Japan's National Referendum Law stipulates that a referendum must be held 60 to 180 days after the amendments are initiated by the Diet.

In order for Kishida to revise the Constitution during his tenure, it will be necessary to initiate the amendments by the middle of next year at the latest, the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun said.

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The Japanese public is split on the need to speed up parliamentary debate on amending the Constitution, according to a Kyodo News survey conducted in March and April.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (right) and Japan's Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi address a media conference on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, April 4, 2023. (PHOTO / AP)

The survey found that 49 percent of respondents said the Diet needs to accelerate discussion on amendments to the Constitution, including Article 9, while 48 percent said it does not.

More than two-thirds of lawmakers support the constitutional amendments, according to Ken Takada, one of the leaders of a Tokyo-based civic group that opposes rewriting the Constitution. He said the Japanese government is eager to legitimize its endeavors to build up the military.

While the Kishida administration pushes for constitutional revisions, it is also intensifying engagement with NATO.

The transatlantic alliance is planning to open a liaison office in Tokyo next year, the first of its kind in Asia, according to Nikkei Asia.

NATO has similar liaison offices at the United Nations in New York and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna, as well as in Georgia, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova and Kuwait.

In many cases, the host nation offers office space for NATO. If Tokyo provides the funding for a Western military alliance to have a foothold in Japan, it would symbolize a new phase in defense cooperation, Nikkei Asia said.

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NATO and Japan will also upgrade their cooperation, aiming to sign an individually tailored partnership program before the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11-12.

Kishida told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Tokyo in January that Japan plans to create an independent mission to NATO, and a new ambassador will be dispatched, according to Nikkei Asia.

Brad Glosserman, deputy director and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University in Tokyo, told US military newspaper Stars and Stripes that the logical place for the office is at US Forces Japan at Yokota Air Base. Yokota is also home to the United Nations Command Rear, a subordinate element of the Republic of Korea-based UN Command.

"NATO has been showing deeper interest and greater engagement with the region and Japan has been encouraging and supporting that evolution," Glosserman said.

China's Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a news conference on May 4 that NATO's move calls for high vigilance among countries in the region. She warned that "NATO's continued eastward foray into the Asia-Pacific and interference in regional affairs will inevitably undermine regional peace and stability and stoke camp confrontation".

M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat, wrote in a tweet that if NATO opens a liaison office in Tokyo, Asian security will never be the same again.