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US pressure may make Abe revise Constitution

By Cai Hong | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-07-08 10:18

Trump calls security treaty an unfair agreement, wants it changed

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shakes hands with US President Donald Trump during the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan June 28, 2019. [Photo/Agencies]

US President Donald Trump's verbal attacks on the US-Japan security treaty could help Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's drive to revise his country's pacifist Constitution.

"If Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III," Trump said in an interview with Fox Business on June 26. "We will go in and protect them with our lives and with our treasure. But if we're attacked, Japan doesn't have to help us. They can watch it on a Sony television."

At a press conference on June 29, when the G20 summit ended in Osaka, Japan, Trump once again called the treaty "an unfair agreement". "And I've told (Abe) that for the last six months.... I said we're going to have to change it," he said.

Japan has rushed to control the damage Trump's criticism may cause on bilateral relations. At a policy debate with leaders of Japan's major political parties on July 1, Abe called the Japan-US alliance "extremely strong" and added that Trump is not thinking of ripping it up.

"I have explained to the president the (legal) constraints of the Self-Defense Forces under the Constitution and what we could do," he said. SDF is the unified military force of Japan.

Abe wants the upcoming upper house election, which will be held on July 21 in Japan, to be about seeking voters' response to the issue of constitutional amendment.

The security treaty, signed in 1951 and revised in 1960, commits the US to defend Japan if it is attacked. In return, Japan provides military bases for US troops. There are about 54,000 US military personnel based in Japan.

Yokusuka base in Kanagawa near Tokyo is the largest overseas US naval installation in the world, and Kadena air base in Okinawa is the largest US air force base in the Asia-Pacific region.

Japan's foreign ministry emphasized that officials at the Pentagon and the State Department have reaffirmed the letter and spirit of the treaty in a joint statement Abe and Trump signed in February 2017, according to the Japan Times.

"The unshakable US-Japan Alliance is the cornerstone of peace, prosperity, and freedom in the Asia-Pacific region. The US commitment to defend Japan through the full range of US military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, is unwavering," the statement reads.

"Amid an increasingly difficult security environment in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States will strengthen its presence in the region, and Japan will assume larger roles and responsibilities in the alliance," the statement says.

Abe has long pushed for revising Japan's Constitution so that his country can shoulder greater global security responsibilities by what he calls "proactive pacifism".

The Article 9 of the Constitution states the Japanese people "forever renounce war as a sovereignty right of the nation". It also states that, to accomplish these aims, armed forces with war potential will not be maintained.

For years, Japanese government interpreted the Constitution as banning the country from using the right of collective self-defense, or the right to attack a third country that has launched an assault against an allied state.

In 2014, Abe changed the longstanding constitutional interpretation to expand the legal scope of SDF's joint military operations with US forces.

In 2015, Japan enacted laws that stretched the limits of the constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight overseas to defend the US or other allies if they were attacked and Japan faced an "existential threat".

Abe has argued that the Article 9 of the Constitution, which went into effect in 1947, should be rewritten to formalize the legal status of the SDF.

"We must write the role of the Self-Defense Forces into the Constitution to put an end to the debate over its constitutionality," he said.

On May 3 - Japan's Constitution Day - Abe renewed his pledge to amend the Constitution and said he hopes to see a revised one go into effect in 2020.

Wang Guangtao, associate researcher with the Center for Japanese Studies at the Shanghaibased Fudan University, said Trump blamed the US-Japan security treaty in an attempt to force Tokyo to compromise when the two countries start trade talks after Japan's upper house election.

Trump's criticism of the treaty will push Japan to improve its military capabilities, Wang said.

However, both Japan and the US seem to be divided on some issues, including security.

An article published on Stratfor, a US geopolitical intelligence platform, said there are increasing concerns that Washington, if push comes to shove, will not spill American blood to defend Japan.

Japan's five-year defense policy, which was released in December and adopted four months later, calls for Japan to support US security commitments in the Indo-Pacific region as an equal partner by enhancing its military capabilities in diverse fields while widening the scope of cooperation with the US.

Japan will continue to move over the next five years toward establishing an independent defense policy while maintaining its security alliance with the US. A commitment to a high-tech military and the development of its own military-industrial complex define Japan's new defense policy.

Facing formidable demographic problems - the country's population diminished by 448,000 last year - and concerned about US willingness to come to its defense, Japan feels it has no choice but to pursue more robust military capabilities. Ultimately, Japanese military leaders are banking that the plan will address its regional concerns while also allowing the country to assert its independence, the article said.

Political analysts say whether Abe is able to reboot his drive for constitutional revision will depend on the results of the upper house elections.

Constitutional amendments require approval of two-thirds of both houses of Japan's parliament and a majority in a referendum.

An opinion poll conducted by newspaper Asahi Shimbun on July 4-5 showed the ruling coalition of Liberal Democratic Party and the Komeito looks set to win a majority of the 124 seats up for grabs in the July 21 election but not enough to initiate a constitutional amendment.

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