Japan’s constitutional reform to propel Asian stability

Japanese Constitution signing page

Imperial signature and seal on Japan’s U.S.-imposed Constitution

Brahma Chellaney

Peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan. The issue Japan faces today is not whether it should remain pacifist but whether it can afford to stay passive in regional and international affairs. A Japan that is better able to defend itself and to partner with friendly Indo-Pacific countries to forestall a destabilizing power imbalance in Asia would truly become a “proactive contributor to peace.”

Challenge from China
US security interests would be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional security. Further national security reform in Japan, from a legal standpoint, is tied to constitutional reform. These twin reforms will help underpin the central goal of America’s Asia-Pacific strategy — a stable balance of power.
Today, the US faces major new challenges in Asia, given the rise of an increasingly assertive China — best symbolized by Beijing’s rebuff of the international-tribunal ruling that knocked the bottom out of its expansive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Indeed, China’s creeping aggression in Asia reflects a “might makes right” strategy designed to extend Chinese control to strategic areas and resources — from the East China Sea to the Himalayas.
The “proactive contribution to peace” is a concept popularized by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Despite a big win at the recent upper house election that enables his ruling coalition to propose constitutional revision in the Diet, Prime Minister Abe is treading cautiously due to the strong criticism he faces from the powerful pacifist constituency at home and from China. By drafting and imposing a pacifist Constitution after World War II, the US created the problem that Japan now confronts — a problem that even constrains the overseas activities of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). America must now seek to be part of the solution so that Japan, in keeping with US interests, plays a proactive role in Asian affairs and does more for its own defense.

Long-Awaited US Expression of Support
The Japanese Constitution suffers from inherent flaws. For example, it defines no head of state, having stripped the Emperor of all but symbolic power. There are also other voices that call for a new Constitution that is anchored in Japan’s own cultural values, political tradition, and national character. The present Constitution, far from reflecting such values, includes phrases and ideas from the 1776 US Independence Declaration and Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg speech, such as life, liberty and human rights.
Take India, another old civilization and deeply rooted democracy like Japan: India’s Constitution is almost as old as Japan’s. But while India has incorporated 100 amendments in its Constitution, Japan has not changed one word in its charter, thanks to its constitutional fundamentalists.
There are strong concerns in Japan over national defense and external security. But only open American support for constitutional reform can make a meaningful difference and help to allay such concerns in Japan. If Japan fails to carry out further reforms of its postwar institutions and policies to meet the new challenges in Asia, it could not only erode its own security but also weaken the role of the US-Japan strategic alliance.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at Center for Policy Research, New Delhi.

@JINF, 2016.

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