Debate on defense bills nears Diet agenda

by Sayuri Daimon

Staff Writer

The Diet finally appears set to deliberate bills to cover the updated Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines, now that the Liberal Democratic Party has officially proposed setting up a special committee on the issue.

Once the fiscal 1999 budget clears the Lower House — possibly by midmonth — the Diet is expected to enter full-scale debate on the guidelines-related bills, which have effectively been on hold since they were endorsed by the Cabinet and submitted to the Diet last April.

But the LDP, which lacks a majority in the Upper House even with its coalition ally, the Liberal Party, seems headed for a bumpy road in seeking Diet approval of the bills amid growing calls from the opposition camp for amendments to the government-proposed legislation.

The bills’ fate depends on how far the LDP can go in responding to requests by the opposition, especially the two largest forces — the Democratic Party of Japan and New Komeito — without compromising the government’s ability to effectively cooperate with the U.S. military.

Security relations with the United States may be seriously affected if the LDP mishandles the matter and fails to win Diet passage of the bills. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi hopes to have the bills passed, or at least have a clear prospect for that goal, before he visits Washington in May.

Washington has begun to put pressure on Tokyo for early enactment of legislation to back up the guidelines, which were updated in 1997 to substantially expand the scope of bilateral defense cooperation to cover emergencies in unspecified “areas surrounding Japan.”

The previous guidelines, adopted in 1978, focused on protecting Japan from invasion or attack. “We’ll closely watch how Diet deliberations develop and will determine whether we can revise the government-proposed bills,” DPJ policy chief Kansei Nakano said. “If our demands are accepted, we’ll support the bills, but if not, we will simply reject them.”

The bills will enable the Self-Defense Forces to provide such cooperation for the U.S. military as logistic support, rear-area search-and-rescue activities and inspection of ships.

The bills will also allow SDF personnel greater leeway in using arms outside of Japan.