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Choose Your Starter: China or Article 9?

Image by Hannah Chang

As Japan’s new Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, comes into office, uncertainty surrounds his foreign policy. So far, he has expressed concern over a potential China-Taiwan conflict and continuing North Korean missile testing and has shown interest in holding diplomatic meetings with the United States. While such gestures seem to affirm a sense of continuity in upholding the status quo of previous administrations, some of his other decisions seem to suggest otherwise. Kishida has announced that the Liberal Democratic Party plans to double defense spending in response to increasing security threats in the region, appealing to conservatives and increasing Japan’s capability to react to China’s surging military presence in East Asia. However, he has also appointed Yoshimasa Hayashi, the active leader in cross-party endeavors, to build Japan-China relations as the foreign minister, advancing his hopes to thaw tensions between the two countries. More broadly, Kishida seems to be taking a conservative stance in foreign policy by looking for rapprochement with China, while the LDP simultaneously pushes for constitutional revision, which could potentially re-establish Japanese military presence in the area for the first time since World War II.

Clarifying the history, likelihood, and implications of a constitutional amendment under Kishida’s administration reveals that his current policy will remain contradictory and self-undermining unless he prioritizes either his foreign policy or the LDP’s goal of revising the constitution, especially with regards to Article 9.

The country’s current constitution completely relinquishes Japan’s right to engage in war in its famous Article 9:

Article 9. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized. 

Article 9 shows great contrast to the absolutist legislation presented in the previous Meiji constitution and reflects the historical need to disarm the country in response to its imperial aggression in East Asia during the Second World War. The new constitution thus earned the nickname: the “Post-war Constitution” or the “Pacifist Constitution.” 

Enacted on May 3rd, 1947, this constitution will see its 75th anniversary in 2022, making it the longest standing constitution without any changes since its enactment, which unsurprisingly, is one of the arguments for revising it. Although attempts at revision can be traced back to as early as during the decade of US occupation, recent support for revision can be attributed to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has made constitution amendment one of the LDP’s primary objectives—a “long-cherished wish” Abe called it. However, the LDP’s advocacy for an expanded Self-Defense force (SDF) has ended inconsequentially, concluding in the failure of Abe’s attempts at realizing these ambitions towards the end of his term. 

Today, the LDP maintains its manifesto in favor of constitutional revision, which intends to change a wide range of clauses, with Article 9 as its most controversial target. A recent poll indicated that 77 percent of the winners in this general election support constitutional amendment. The central ambiguity of this data is whether the support is for strengthening the government’s executive power when it comes to public health emergencies or for expanding the military. Japan has also revised its referendum process for constitution revision, making it easier for people to cast their votes. The country is ever-closer to holding a referendum on the constitution—a significant development, given how difficult it was for pro-revisionists to win a majority in the upper and lower houses during Abe’s era. 

If this trend culminates in an actual revision of the constitution, it is likely that the new amendment will take the shape of LDP’s 2012 draft which removes limitations to Japan’s military power, allowing Japan to react to threats on all fronts, and even allowing the military to participate in overseas peacekeeping missions. This means that Japan can send troops to foreign nations in response to events similar to the execution of Japanese journalists by ISIS back in 2015. Theoretically, Japan could also intervene in a possible China-Taiwan conflict if it can successfully argue that such a conflict poses a threat to its national security. Of course, it is not in Japan’s interest to come face to face with China militarily, and current national sentiment definitely reflects people’s aversion to conflict with China. Nevertheless, the mere possibility gives neighboring countries, namely China and South Korea, a more concrete reason to oppose this revision. Especially given that the Japanese government has yet to fully apologize, recognize, and actively repent for its war crimes.

In the short-run, however, it would be a diplomatic disaster for Japan if Kishida tries to strengthen ties with China while also trying to revise the constitution. It is unlikely that China would allow Japan to militarily threaten its position in East Asia even if their economic relations continue to grow. Kishida might be able to settle a deal with China to stall their quarrel over the Diaoyu Islands (also known as the Senkaku Islands), presumably given China’s greater focus on Taiwan in the near future and desire to keep Japan neutral. However, his conservative politics and growing tensions in the area suggest that an expanded Article 9 might soon become a reality. If this is true, Japan will receive intense condemnation from many East Asian countries, and most of Japan’s peripheral ties with China will become secondary. However, if  Kishida commits to revision by garnering internal support under current international tensions, he might be able to earn one of the greatest achievements for an LDP leader. On the other hand, closer ties with China will mean economic benefits, security in East Asia, and more bargaining power with the United States. Either way, a choice is better than none.

In conclusion, efforts to amend Japan’s constitution will most likely return to the country’s political spotlight and with increasing support. If Kishida wants to effectively realize his foreign policy, he will need to clarify his support of either constitutional revision or building closer ties with China, but not both. If not, fully going forward with both plans will either mean total failure or unproductive procrastination until the time comes when Japan has to decide.