Analysis: Defense changes dodged public debate

by Sayuri Daimon and Yoko Hani

Staff writers

A Lower House special committee’s approval Monday of bills covering the updated Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines will certainly set the future course of bilateral security cooperations, forging a stronger military alliance between the two nations and greatly changing the role of the Self-Defense Forces outside Japan.

Despite their significance, however, the bills have failed to get the public attention they deserve.

The government has been so anxious to obtain the Lower House’s approval of the bills before Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi meets U.S. President Bill Clinton in Washington on May 3, that it has not thoroughly debated Japan’s security policy.

“The overall vision of Japan’s security policy should have fully been discussed, but the Diet debate focused on technical matters and terms and phrases in the bills such as the definition of ‘emergencies in areas surrounding Japan,’” said Tetsuo Maeda, a professor at Tokyo International University.

The bills’ passage will enable Japan’s SDF to cultivate new areas of support for U.S. military forces for the first time in its 49-year history. The current law authorizes such support only if Japan comes under direct threat of military attacks.

The new legislation urges the state and the SDF to provide the U.S. with logistic support in accordance with the updated defense cooperation guidelines when military emergencies break out in areas surrounding Japan.

It also allows the SDF to engage in search-and-rescue operations and provide transport as well as repair and maintain materials, medical care and communications equipment for U.S. forces.

“Until today, exactly what kind of operations the SDF could be engaged in during emergencies around Japan were unclear. I think it is highly significant that such SDF operations and the limit of SDF’s support have been spelled out in the new legislation,” said Satoshi Morimoto, senior analyst at Nomura Research Institute Ltd. and a former Foreign Ministry official.

For example, when the Persian Gulf War broke out in 1991, Japan, which did not have laws to permit the SDF to operate outside Japan, could not respond to the U.S. request to provide material supply and other strategic support for U.S. forces dispatched to the Middle-East, Morimoto said.

Still, some critics point out, mounting questions raised during the special committee sessions — including ambiguity over the definition of situations allowing the SDF to provide support for the U.S. forces — remain unanswered.

Asked whether Japan will provide support to U.S. forces in the event that Okinawa is targeted by a North Korean missile, Yuya Niwa, deputy chief of the Liberal Democratic Party’s policy affairs council, said only that the government will judge the situation based on “whether it will severely affect Japan’s peace and stability.”

Uncertainty also remains over what actions Japan would take, for instance, if Indonesia faces an insurrection and the U.S. decides to send in troops.

Analysts are skeptical about whether Japan can make its own judgment over contingencies in areas near Japan, noting that Japan will have to depend on information provided by the U.S. to draw up various strategic plans.

In most cases, they contend, it will be difficult for Japan to refuse U.S. requests for logistic support.

Despite the significant changes in Japan’s security policy that may result from the updated defense guidelines, the bills intended to implement the new guidelines hardly sparked heated debate among the Japanese public, unlike processes leading up to the 1960 signing of the revised Japan-U.S. Security Pact and the Diet endorsement in 1992 of bills to enable SDF to participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

Part of the reason, critics argue, is that much of the negotiations over the bills’ amendment took place in closed-door meetings among the LDP, Liberal Party, New Komeito and the Democratic Party of Japan, outside the Diet building, and they have spent most of their energy in seeking compromises over terms and phrases of the bills.

Negotiations for amendments to the bills also proceeded without participation of once-powerful left-leaning forces such as the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party.

The two parties vehemently oppose the bills, saying that expanded SDF roles stipulated in the bills are in conflict with the nation’s pacifist Constitution.

However, unlike the past, those opposition forces failed to develop the bills’ debate into a full-scale constitutional issue and was unable to wage all-out resistance to the bills due to their declining power in the Diet.

A senior LDP politician who declined to be named said that the LDP and the government carefully avoided linking the bills to the constitutional debate.

“We believe that the debate involving the Constitution and other issues of collective self-defense must be discussed in the future, but if we unfold such issues, Prime Minister Obuchi’s Cabinet may be in jeopardy,” he said.

Throughout the debate over the bills, the LDP attached great importance to gaining the support of New Komeito, hoping that a stable political alliance with the second largest opposition force would help the LDP, which even including the Liberal Party lacks a majority in the Upper House, ride over the current Diet session.

The LDP’s efforts to hammer out compromises over the revisions of the bills with New Komeito and the Liberal Party finally bore fruit late Sunday night when their secretaries general agreed to delete the clause concerning the inspection of unidentified ships, the last sticking point, from the bills.

The alliance formed over the guideline-related bills by the three parties Sunday night is likely to last throughout the remaining Diet session where more than 100 bills are awaiting to be approved by the end of the current Diet session in mid-June.