If a US vessel comes under attack while carrying no Japanese nationals, could-or should-Japan exercise the right to collective self-defence and come to that vessel's aid? This is one of the major questions that remains unanswered as a panel of senior officials of the Liberal Democratic Party and its ruling coalition partner, New Komeito, discusses possible amendments to the government's interpretation of the Constitution in relation to this right.
At a meeting of the panel Friday, LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura suggested adding three new conditions as a compromise to help persuade Komeito to lift the current self-imposed ban on collective self-defence. The suggestion was made as a personal proposal by Komura, in his capacity as chair of the panel.
The focus of the panel's meetings is now likely to shift to the extent of the nation's capability to react to specific emergency scenarios, in which the government believes this ability is impeded by its current constitutional interpretation.
The three new conditions proposed by Komura included using the right to collective self-defence only when an attack "threatens to undermine Japan's existence or its people's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The second element invokes part of the expression employed in the 1972 government view that detailed conditions under which Japan was permitted to adopt self-defence measures.
Of eight scenarios in which the government has suggested the nation should be able to exercise the right to collective self-defence, Komeito appears willing to accept two-the defence of a US transport vessel evacuating Japanese nationals from a contingency area on the Korean Peninsula or other location near Japan, and protection of nearby US vessels on alert against a ballistic missile launch. Komeito is likely to give the green light to these instances because a response would be similar to an existing provision for the exercise of individual self-defence.
There is also some support within Komeito for responding to "forcible halting and inspection of ships" and "protecting a US vessel under armed attack" in areas near Japan. Some members of the party believe that a response would be justified because failure to do so could lead to an armed attack on Japan.
However, some Komeito members are more reluctant to accept this view, and feel these scenarios would not fall within the scope of the three new conditions.
Komeito House of Representatives member Kiyohiko Toyama is among those cautious to give approval in these instances.
"We cannot say that Japanese people's lives, liberty and right to pursue happiness are being fundamentally threatened in these cases," Toyama said at a lower house Budget Committee meeting on May 28, referring to whether Japan should come to the defence of a US vessel under attack with no Japanese nationals onboard.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been a vocal advocate of minesweeping to safeguard the nation's vital sea lanes, and international joint operations to protect commercial vessels. Komeito remains even more opposed on this issue.
"Even if the sea lanes become impassable, we have stockpiles of oil," a senior Komeito member said.
However, the government and the LDP believe Japan should be able to respond in such a scenario under the three new conditions. Japan relies on oil shipped from the Middle East to meet 80 per cent of its domestic demand. If this supply were cut, "It would have a massive impact on our nation," Abe has said.