Japan can send troops to the Middle East for minesweeping without a cease-fire, as a reinterpretation of the Constitution will expand their overseas role in a major security policy shift, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday.
During the first Diet debate since Abe's Cabinet approved the change on July 1, Abe said the country's use of the right to collective self-defense would be subject to stricter conditions than international standards, and Japan's "exclusively defense-oriented policy" would not change.
"We will maintain our basic policy that is committed exclusively to defense. It does not mean that we will be allowed to use the same level of collective self-defense as other countries," Abe told the House of Representatives Budget Committee.
Still, critics and opposition lawmakers have questioned whether the three conditions would be effective in halting Japan's use of force, arguing any abuse would negate the country's pacifist credo.
Even after Abe spent hours discussing details about what Japan aims to do under a robust U.S.-Japan security alliance, concern still persists that the definition of "clear dangers," a prerequisite to use force, can be interpreted at the discretion of the government, they said.
As some legal experts criticize Abe for bypassing the due process of law, Abe made clear if Japan aims to further expand the scope of how much force it can use under collective self-defense, constitutional amendment will be necessary.
To press the case for Self-Defense Forces' participation in minesweeping, Abe said around 80 percent of crude oil destined for Japan travels through the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and oil supply shortages would have a "devastating" impact on the country. "Someone has to remove mines," he said.
"Under international law, minesweeping amounts to use of force. We cannot participate in combat operations to use force, but if the operation is passive and restrained (like minesweeping) it's likely the three conditions will be cleared," Abe said.
Japan would be allowed to use force if "the country's existence is threatened, and there are clear dangers" that the people's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is imperiled due to an armed attack on Japan or "countries with close ties."
The other two conditions newly set in the Cabinet decision state there should be "no other appropriate means," and the use of force should be kept to the minimum.
Abe said SDF participation in collective security measures could be possible if all three conditions set by the Cabinet resolution are met, but Japanese troops cannot be mobilized for overseas combat.
Abe's Cabinet set the three conditions on the use of force in self-defense on July 1, broadening the notion of "the minimum" allowed under the supreme law to include collective self-defense, or defending allies under armed attack even when Japan itself is not.
In the run-up to the decision, ruling coalition talks on a review of legal constraints on the SDF focused among other issues on whether to impose geographical limits should Japan come to the defense of an ally.
The New Komeito party, the junior coalition partner of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, made a concession to allow the use of force under collective self-defense authorized by the U.N. Charter but demanded that exercise of the right be kept in check.
Approval ratings for the Abe Cabinet have dropped in opinion polls since the policy change, and a candidate supported by the LDP and New Komeito lost in Sunday's Shiga gubernatorial election, prompting the prime minister to admit public dissatisfaction over the security issue is partly to blame.
Around the Diet where Abe faced ruling and opposition party lawmakers, more than 1,000 people gathered in protest against Abe's push for collective self-defense, shouting, "Drop the Cabinet decision!" and "Don't ruin Article 9!"
Japan will need to prepare the legal basis to authorize the major security policy change by revising a set of laws to legalize the exercise of the right to collective self-defense.
Japan and the United States are expected to reflect the major policy shift in revised bilateral defense cooperation guidelines to be compiled by the end of the year.