Japan’s Collective Self-Defense: A Catalyst for More Deterrence or Security Competition?

Japan’s Collective Self-Defense: A Catalyst for More Deterrence or Security Competition?

abeAnnouncing his Cabinet decision to enable Japan to exercise its collective self-defense rights, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assured the public that the new security policy will serve as deterrence and ensure peace. This explanation, however, overlooks the fact that a robust military posture could also trigger a security dilemma and invite conflict. Abe must explain to his people and neighbors how he will address the potential negative aspects of the new policy.

On July 1, the Abe administration announced a historic revision to Japan’s pacifist postwar security policy. It provided a new constitutional interpretation that will enable the country to exercise its collective self-defense rights, meaning that the Japanese force can now defend friends and allies under attack for the first time in history. Prime Minister Abe explained the new policy as one of deterrence, which will prevent aggression and ensure peace in today’s rapidly changing international security environment. Some Japanese newspapers supported Abe’s views.

“Deterrence maintains peace.” The logic is by no means a new one. It underlines balance-of-power politics throughout history, as well as the U.S. military “rebalancing” toward Asia, or more specifically, toward a rising China. The logic also applies to Japan’s new defense policy. “The most important thing is that this [collective self-defense] makes it possible for us to work more closely with countries in the region to maintain the balance of power and deterrence vis-à-vis China,” explains Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

The logic tells only half the story, however. The other half of the story is this: deterrence can also invite conflict. One’s purely defensive military posture can appear offensive and trigger the adversary’s assertive reaction, which in turn sets off a negative spiral of security competition that can ultimately lead to war (remember World War I). Military efforts alone cannot solve this so-called “security dilemma.” Diplomatic efforts are necessary to avoid such unnecessary conflict.

Concerns over a potential security dilemma are indeed largely absent between Japan and its allies and partners, including the United States, Australia, the Philippines—all of which have welcomed the new policy. Things may not be as rosy when it comes to China and South Korea, however. “We urge the Japanese side to earnestly respect legitimate security concerns of its Asian neighbors, deal with relevant issues with discretion, not to harm the national sovereignty and security interests of China and not to undermine regional peace and stability,” warned Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei at a news briefing following Japan’s Cabinet decision. The South Korean Foreign Ministry also expressed concerns: “When it comes to Japan’s security discussion, the Japanese government should dispel doubts and concerns stemming from history, abandon historical revisionism, and behave properly in a bid to win confidence from its neighboring countries.”

Of course, one should not read these political statements at face value. Such alarming language is expected, given the acrimonious relationships Japan currently has with the two countries over history issues and territorial disputes. One also should not exaggerate Tokyo’s move, as its exercise of collective self-defense still remains very limited and Abe pledged to uphold the existing principle prohibiting the overseas deployment of Japan’s troops in general. However, this does not deny the fact that Abe’s new policy could appear as a greater threat to neighboring countries, especially China, which has flashpoints such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands with Japan and now faces Tokyo more actively participating in the U.S. rebalancing efforts against Beijing. This perceived threat—whether it be true or not—might necessitate China’s balancing, as some experts warn, triggering a security competition rather than ensuring peace in the region.

As he expands Japan’s security portfolio, Abe must therefore articulate and implement his diplomatic agendas designed to ameliorate a possible security dilemma in the region. Diplomatic engagement is of course no easy task. It requires sincere efforts of all parties, which are difficult to achieve given the bitter relations between Japan, China, and South Korea. But makes no mistake: collective self-defense is not the end in of itself. It is simply one of the many means to the true end, peace. Active deterrence leading to security competition mistakes the means for the end. The new security policy therefore must work in tandem with diplomatic efforts to address the possible security concerns of neighboring countries. The world awaits Abe to unveil his strategy not only on the former but also on the latter.


The author, Daisuke Minami, is a Graduate Research Assistant for the Rising Powers Initiative. He is also a Ph.D. student in the Political Science Department, The George Washington University.