U.S. Softens on Japanese Re-Armament

In light of North Korea’s nuclear arms and missile programs, is the U.S. ready to see Japan change its 59-year-old, constitutionally imposed policy of maintaining a military authorized and equipped only to defend the home islands?

In 2003, the U.S. welcomed Japan’s support in the Iraq War, in which the Japanese deployed a small contingent of troops—but for non-combat activities only.

But at a press briefing last week, White House Spokesman Tony Snow hinted the U.S. is open to more revolutionary change in Japan’s military posture when I asked whether the U.S. had any objection to recent statements from Tokyo that they might amend their post-war constitution to permit rearmament.

“We will let the Japanese take responsibility for their affairs,” Snow said, adding that “if you end up having an arms escalation on the part of the North Koreans, you’ve got to expect that people in the neighborhood are going to respond. And the question is whether the Chinese want that to happen, or whether the South Koreans want that to happen, and, for that matter, whether the Japanese want it to happen.”

When I pressed him as to whether that meant the U.S. would go along with Japan’s amending its 1947 constitution written under U.S. occupation (Article 9 of which guarantees Japanese pacifism by limiting its military forces), Snow said: “I’m not answering that question because I don’t get into the hypotheticals. Wait until we have a situation like that, and I’ll give you a response.”

Snow’s statement came days after Shinzo Abe, who is chief cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Junichiro Kiozumi and is considered the frontrunner to succeed him, suggested Japan should examine the legality and possibility of pre-emptive strikes against North Korea’s missiles. Last fall, Abe’s party released draft language for rewriting Article 9 that would allow Japan to engage in “collective” defense (i.e. coming to the aid of other nations). And in 2002, the hawkish Abe said he interpreted Japan’s constitution to allow Japan to possess nuclear weapons “as long as they are small.”

Republican defense experts seemed cautiously open to the prospect of a re-armed Japan.

“Given the nature of the North Korean crisis, I think it is appropriate to re-examine the Japanese constitutional limitations on force,” said Frank Carlucci, secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan. “This, of course, is a decision only the Japanese can make.”

Center for Security Policy President Frank Gaffney, who served as assistant secretary of Defense under Reagan, was blunter. “To the extent that we’re leaving [the Japanese] naked to an extended threat, we leave them no choice,” he said. Reacting to Snow’s statement on possible Japanese rearmament, Gaffney told me: “There seems to be a signal being sent in what Snow has said.”