Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has finalized a proposal requesting that the government possess a "counteroffensive capability" in response to armed attacks, signaling a great shift in Japan's defense policy.
The phrasing was changed from "enemy base attack capability," which meant striking missile launch bases and other locations before an enemy country could send projectiles toward Japan.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has maintained that his administration will consider securing an enemy base strike capability. The LDP intends to have its proposal reflected in the government's national security strategy slated for revision at the end of the year.
The security environment is undergoing drastic changes, from Russia's invasion of Ukraine to ballistic missile launches by North Korea and China's military expansion. Under such circumstances, Japan's defense role is undoubtedly being questioned.
However, doubts and concerns overshadow the LDP's proposal. Acquiring an enemy base attack capability, in the first place, could place Japan outside the bounds of its defense-only policy based on Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution.
The policy is grounded in the principle that Japan will exercise the minimum necessary self-defense to counter attacks, and that its gear will also be limited to minimum. Japan entrusts armed strike capabilities to the U.S. military, while the Japanese Self-Defense Forces take up the role of a shield.
The Japanese government, however, has adopted the interpretation that attacking an enemy base would be permissible under the Constitution if an enemy country embarked on an attack on Japan with missiles and only if Japan had no other options to defend itself.
However, it is difficult to draw a line between "counterattacks" and preemptive attacks, which are banned under international law. Questions also remain as to whether weapons capable of striking another country's territory could be called the minimum necessary level.
Furthermore, the LDP's proposal includes not only enemy bases but also "command and control functions" as targets for counteroffensives. This will only create more room for a stretched interpretation. We fear that strike targets could expand without limit to include the attacking country's command center and political leadership.
The proposal assumes a scenario of "an armed attack including the use of ballistic missiles" for Japan to engage in enemy strikes, but it's unclear what kind of "armed attack" it's talking about.
If Japan wields its counteroffensive capabilities as deterrence, it could fuel a military expansion race in the region. An enemy base strike capability requires extensive defense equipment for surveillance and to neutralize the enemy's air defense network and other capabilities. Questions also linger over the financial soundness of the proposal.
Moreover, even though the proposal would shake the very fabric of Japan as a peaceful nation, there is no sign that those involved conducted a detailed evaluation of its consistency with the defense-only policy or weighed it against real challenges.
Prime Minister Kishida has reiterated that he will "consider" the issue, but has never presented concrete ideas. If the government pushes through a stance of securing counterattack capabilities without national-level debate, it will create problems for the future.