Why Japan must rescind Article 9

Associated Press/Eugene Hoshiko
Members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force rush out from a V-22 Osprey as they take part in a joint military helicopter-borne operation drill with U.S. Marines at Higashi Fuji range in Gotemba, southwest of Tokyo, on March 15, 2022.

Japan, along with U.S. interests in the Pacific, faces an intensifying tsunami bearing down on the island nation from three directions. North Korea is threatening preemptive nuclear strikes in the west, Russia is conducting military drills to the north in the disputed Kuril Islands, and China is economically and militarily encircling Tokyo in the South China Sea, East Asian Sea, and symbolically in the Solomon Islands to the south. Floodgates, in the form of a robust military deterrence, are needed to stop these tidal waves; however, Article 9 leaves Japan and its allies exposed — the provision in the Japanese Constitution prohibiting the creation and use of offensive military weapons.

To date, Tokyo’s practical workaround of Article 9 centers on utilizing Japan’s military as a Self-Defense Force to “defend” economic interests under the guise of “Security Cooperation.” This inventive approach constitutionally permits Japan to enter into various military alliances and bilateral agreements — including the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In 2011, Tokyo expanded this legislative loophole in order to establish Japan’s first foreign military base since World War II in Djibouti — combating piracy in and around the Horn of Africa. 

Innovative as it was, this workaround is no longer sufficient. While threats from Pyongyang and Moscow are largely rhetorical for now, Beijing’s growing number of aggressive moves are significantly more threatening. Article 9 ostensibly prevents Japan from providing meaningful military assurances to South Korea and Taiwan, actively challenging the disputed Spratly Islands, or policing international shipping lanes.

China’s new security understanding with the Solomon Islands is the latest Beijing provocation. While aimed as a modern-day dagger at neighboring Australia and New Zealand, and by extension the $24 billion of annual trade flowing through those waters to and from the U.S., the pact is also a blunt in-your-face warning to Japan that Beijing’s economic and military flex is far bigger than anything Tokyo was ever able to achieve — the Solomons were the furthest territorial occupation of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in WWII.  

Beijing’s calculated gambit also targets Washington and President Biden directly. Guadalcanal, the largest island of the Solomon Islands archipelago, was the site of the first U.S. major amphibious assault and land victory in WWII. About 1,400 American soldiers were killed in action (KIA) while expelling Japanese Imperial forces from the six major islands, along with 4,200 wounded. Japanese losses were even more horrific — 24,000 KIA. China’s taunting symbolism is not lost on either the U.S. or Japanese public. 

Washington and Japan would do well to take heed, and then back Australia’s drawing of an unequivocal “red line” in the Solomon Islands with their own statements. Canberra has made clear it will not accept any Chinese bases in the archipelago and — for now, at least — Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is adhering to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s demand.  

For the U.S., that means recognizing the Obama administration’s much touted “pivot to Asia” is unworkable on a global scale, including its primary intended beneficiary — the Pacific Rim. Not only did it create vacuums in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, although reaffirmed by the Biden administration in October 2021, it has failed as an effective deterrence in the Pacific. China has “fully militarized” the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, where 20 percent to 33 percent of global trade is estimated to pass. Beijing is also threatening to militarily seize control of the uninhabited Senkaku islands administered by Japan in the East Asian Sea. Despite this, Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently reaffirmed Beijing as “main U.S. rival.”

While Washington’s actions would be largely political, Japan’s — rescinding Article 9 — is deeply divisive and emotional. It would be a heavy lift for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The horrors of WWII — war crimes committed in the name of the Emperor Shōwa, and its nuclear aftermath — are still living memories for many Japanese families. Others, especially far right-wing nationalists, remain in denial, thereby making national consensus difficult. In 2019, a Kyoto News Agency survey revealed 56 percent of Japanese citizens opposed then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to amend Article 9 to allow the formation and utilization of an offensive military force.

Europe has the luxury of NATO for a collective defense; however, Japan can rely on only a patchwork of defensive alliances. Japan needs a military capable of conducting offensive operations. Tokyo’s future existential battles, alongside its allies, and their best hopes for avoiding them, might very well be in Seoul and Taipei. AUKUS, the new Australian, U.K.and U.S. tripartite military alliance in the Pacific, can strategically provide a nuclear check on Beijing — but, as evidenced in Ukraine, Japan needs robust conventional military offensive capabilities. 

Tokyo no longer can afford to stand on the sidelines. Increasing defense spending is a start, but Japan must pursue rescinding Article 9. Until then, Japan’s absence will continue to weaken the very military alliances Tokyo hopes to rely upon in the event of a military confrontation.  Notwithstanding Beijing’s fears, Japan understands a Pacific version of NATO is not possible. Tokyo’s ASEAN partner, Indonesia, made that abundantly clear when Jakarta condemned the formation of AUKUS — and the U.S. and U.K. for supplying Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines.

Tokyo and her allies may be running out of time. Chinese President Xi Jinping may pledge “peaceful reunification”; however, China’s aim of repossessing Taiwan sooner than later remains. Adm. Philip S. Davidson, then-commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, warned Congress in March 2021 that China could invade Taiwan by 2027. Taiwan fears it could be even sooner.  

During WWII, Japan ran resupply missions during the New Guinea and Solomon Islands campaigns against Australia and the U.S. — including Guadalcanal. The U.S. press dubbed the nighttime supply runs the “Tokyo Express.” Now, posthaste, Japan must send Beijing, and its Pacific allies, a wake-up message in support of Canberra and Wellington via a modern-day Tokyo Express: Rescind Article 9. Anything less would reinforce a permissive environment in the Pacific, and risks the possibility of Japan getting rolled over by a tsunami whirling from China, North Korea and Russia.

Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022

Tags Biden China aggression Japan Japan Self-Defense Forces North Korea nuclear threat Russian irredentism

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