Abe reaffirms need for greater defense reach
TOKYO -- Legislation that would broaden Japan's scope for using military force is "essential for defending our people's lives and peaceful existence," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared Monday as the upper house of parliament took up the controversial bills.
Abe pointed to potential threats in Japan's neighborhood.
"North Korea is developing nuclear weapons," he told the House of Councilors. "China has repeatedly violated our territorial waters in the East China Sea and is unilaterally reclaiming land on a vast scale and building structures in the South China Sea."
With the new defense powers in place, "our deterrence would increase further, and Japan's risk of coming under attack would decrease," Abe said.
The bills would enshrine in law Japan's ability to engage in collective self-defense, or coming to the aid of allies under fire, which the Abe government affirmed last year by altering a long-standing constitutional interpretation.
Challenging Abe on Monday, former Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan called the bills "unconstitutional" and accused the government of seeking to amend the charter by the backdoor. Abe contended that the legislation would not violate the constitution's ban on making war, citing a 1959 Supreme Court ruling that upholds the constitutionality of a minimum level of self defense.
The lower house passed the national security legislation on July 16, sending it to the upper chamber, where deliberations begin in earnest Tuesday in a special-purpose committee. The Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling bloc may invoke a constitutional provision that lets the lower house enact legislation by a two-thirds majority should the upper house fail to vote on it within 60 days. The bills look likely to become law in the current parliamentary session, which has been extended to Sept. 27.
The Abe government, together with the ruling coalition, is trying to calm the anxiety created by its "peace and security" bills, branded "war" legislation by critics. Opposition parties have attacked the proposed shift in defense posture on constitutional and other grounds. Abe has promised to make a clear, conscientious case for the legislation. Whether a skeptical public proves any more accepting will depend on how thorough of a debate takes place in the upper house.
In the lower house, the ruling coalition gave opposition parties nine times as much time for questions on the bills. This left the legislation exposed to all sorts of "smears," a senior LDP lawmaker complains.
The DPJ and the Japanese Communist Party have claimed that the legislation would lead to conscription. Speaking in the upper house Monday, the LDP's Junzo Yamamoto called such talk "groundless, malicious charged rhetoric" and urged Abe to set the record straight. Taking his cue, the prime minister said that conscription was clearly unconstitutional and would never be brought back.
Lawmakers from five parties, including the DPJ, the Communists and the Japan Innovation Party, weighed in with questions. Abe hewed close to the responses he had given in the lower house. When the DPJ's Kitazawa pressed him for specific examples of the kind of "existential threats" that would warrant collective self-defense responses, Abe avoided naming any countries or regions.
The prime minister has often given minesweeping in the Strait of Hormuz, a potential choke point for Japan's energy supply, as an example of collective self-defense. Kitazawa argued that in light of the recent Iran nuclear deal, this scenario no longer justifies the legislation. Abe countered that the scenario doesn't assume that one particular country will mine the strait.
The legislation's constitutionality remains a focus of opposition attacks in the upper house. Kitazawa hammered on this point, arguing that "what the Japanese people want is not counterproposals but for the bills to be thrown out."