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LDP proposal to gain counterstrike capability destabilizing Japan's 'defense-only' policy

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, receives the Liberal Democratic Party's defense proposal from the party's national security research committee chairperson Itsunori Onodera at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, on April 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) submitted a national security proposal to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on April 27, requesting that the Japanese government acquire a "counterstrike capability" that would allow it to attack an enemy country's missile launch bases and other locations.

    The phrase is a change in the previous terminology of possessing "enemy base strike capability." The objective is to respond to North Korea and China's military expansion, but the proposal only offers a vague idea of such capabilities and could sway Japan's defense-only security policy.

    "We want our country to be able to respond to other countries' improved capacity in various areas and to have a steady counterstrike capability under the current security environment," said former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, who chairs the LDP's national security research committee, as he handed the party's proposal to Prime Minister Kishida on April 27.

    The motivation behind the LDP proposing strike capabilities is a sense of alert over China and other countries. While the United States doesn't own surface-launched intermediate-range missiles due to the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty agreed with Russia up until 2019, China is believed to possess some 1,900 short- and mid-range ballistic missiles that can be launched from land. Many in the LDP are starting to claim that together with the U.S., Japan should also acquire extended-range missiles to exercise deterrence.

    The Japanese government maintains that it's "possible under legal doctrine" for the country to possess the capability for enemy base strikes "as long as there are no other recognizable options." At the same time, when it comes to attacking enemy bases, Japan relies on the U.S. under the Japan-U.S. security treaty and doesn't possess offensive weapons. This is because Japan maintains its defense-only policy under Article 9 of the Constitution, which only allows the country to have the minimum necessary capability for self-defense.

    The LDP's proposal includes not only an enemy country's missile launch bases but also "command and control functions, among other things" as targets for counterstrikes, leaving possibilities for the expansion of strike targets. There is no clear explanation as to what exactly are "command and control functions," and the use of "among other things" further obscures the potential targets.

    Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed for a counterstrike capability targeting the enemy's "military nerve center," while multiple LDP lawmakers argued during intraparty meetings to finalize the proposal that a review on Japan's defense-only policy would be absolutely necessary if Japan were to possess the capability to attack an enemy country's territory, rocking the concept of Japan's defense-exclusive security policy.

    The reason that "enemy base strike capability" was changed to be called a "counterstrike capability" under the new proposal is to wipe out concerns that it could be used for preemptive attacks banned under international law, in hopes that it would lead to Japan's possession of such a capability. In addition, the use of the word "capability" rather than calling it "strike strength" or "power" is apparently to present a more restrained approach.

    Onodera told reporters on April 27 that the "counterstrike capability" that his party is talking about is "the necessary ability to protect the lives of the Japanese people consistent with the idea of the defense-only policy within the scope of the current Constitution."

    However, as discussion on concrete aspects including strike equipment moves forward, more questions will inevitably be raised regarding the consistency between the LDP's ideas of counterstrike capabilities and Japan's defense-exclusive policy.

    The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan's policy chief Junya Ogawa pointed out that the counterstrike capability "has extremely delicate issues related to the defense-only policy" and criticized the LDP's proposal as "careless and provocative" when considering that it could overprovoke surrounding countries.

    A long-serving LDP member told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Unless we change the meaning of our defense-only policy to mean 'not engaging in a war of aggression' or something in that line, I doubt that we can have a counterstrike capability. I just can't picture the prime minister being able to provide convincing answers when he is questioned by the opposition parties in the Diet about the contradiction (between the strike capability and defense-only policy)."

    (Japanese original by Shun Kawaguchi, Political News Department)

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