Japan must avoid treading Gulf War path

by Toshi Maeda and Kanako Takahara

Staff writers After last week’s terrorist attacks in the United States, Japan was again haunted by the dilemma that confronted it 10 years ago.

While the U.S. and its allies mull ways to retaliate, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been pressed to find ways for Japan to contribute to an expected multinational military operation despite the constraints of its war-renouncing Constitution.

For many officials and lawmakers, bitter memories linger of the Persian Gulf War, when Tokyo’s $13 billion contribution to the U.S.-led multinational force was called “too little, too late.”

At that time, the government and the Liberal Democratic Party failed in their bid to enact a new law to allow the Self-Defense Forces to provide noncombat support to the multinational force against Iraq, and thus Japan was only able to send minesweepers after the fighting.

Japan is now again struggling to find legal grounds for action that its key ally wants it to take to cooperate in retaliation against the attacks.

“We never want to follow the same path we took in the Gulf War,” Defense Agency Director General Gen Nakatani said earlier this week. “We should learn lessons from the Gulf War and take firm and decisive measures in response this time.”

The government has interpreted the Constitution as allowing the SDF to defend Japan against enemy attacks but not to join multinational operations to defend its allies.

However, a law was enacted in 1999 to allow the SDF to lend logistic support to U.S. forces if “a situation posing a serious threat to Japan’s security” erupts in “areas surrounding Japan.”

On Wednesday, Koizumi announced that Japan intends to dispatch SDF troops to lend logistic and other noncombat support to U.S. forces for any upcoming retaliation.

“The preface of our Constitution says no nation should be responsible to itself alone. I would like to respect that perspective while also taking into account (the war-renouncing) Article 9,” Koizumi said as he tried to explain that Japan’s planned support will be constitutional. But he fell short of making it clear whether he will seek new legislation or invoke existing laws to enable the SDF action.

While some insist the 1999 law can be applied to SDF support for anticipated U.S. operations in Afghanistan, others claim the “areas surrounding Japan” should not be stretched to include Central Asia or the Middle East.

“When the 1999 law was enacted, the government made it clear that (areas surrounding Japan) is not a geographic but a situational concept. Applying that law to the current case will be the most simple and swift way for Japan to deal with the situation,” said Takeshi Iwaya, an LDP Lower House member and ex-parliamentary secretary for the Defense Agency.

But when the law was debated in the Diet, the late Keizo Obuchi, who was prime minister at the time, said the Indian Ocean and Middle East are not included in areas covered by the legislation. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said earlier in the week that he sees problems in stretching the law that far.

An idea gaining ground within the ruling bloc is to enact during the extra Diet session that convenes next Thursday a temporary law specific to the ongoing crisis.

But there are still issues to be discussed. New Komeito, the larger of the LDP’s two coalition partners, suggested Japan should only extend support if the U.S.-led operations win U.N. approval.

Atsuyuki Sassa, former director at the Cabinet Security Affairs Office, is urging quick action unconstrained by conventional Constitution views.

“This is self-defense by civilized people against fanatical believers,” he said. “It is a new concept of war, and Japan should definitely offer noncombatant support, such as logistics, transportation, communications and intelligence.”

Sassa said that if Japan fails to cooperate in a visible manner in the war against terrorism, the Japan-U.S. security alliance will be at risk. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington took place just three days after the two countries celebrated the 50th anniversary of their bilateral security treaty.

“The alliance would practically come to an end,” he said. “The U.S. side is expecting to see Japanese flags this time around.”

Toshiyuki Shikata, professor of Teikyo University and former commanding general of the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Northern Area Army, said the latest crisis would provide a good opportunity for the state to settle the debate over its self-imposed ban on collective defense.

“A nation should think of what it should do, rather than what it can do (under its legal constraints),” he said.

Other experts disagree and warn against taking any hasty action.

Tetsuo Maeda, professor of international relations at Tokyo International University, said Japan is doing enough already and should not be so “self-denigrating.”

“During the Gulf War, U.S. bases in the Philippines acted as a keystone of U.S. supply operations. Since the U.S. military withdrew from Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines in 1992, U.S. bases in Yokosuka (Kanagawa Prefecture) and in Okinawa have taken up that role,” he said. “Both Japanese and Americans should realize that Japan is already contributing to U.S. operations sufficiently.”

Some lawmakers and defense experts, including Maeda, take issue with U.S. President George W. Bush’s claims that the terrorist attacks were an “act of war.”

“According to international laws, it was a crime. And the U.S. has not gotten approval from the U.N. (to retaliate). From these two perspectives, the circumstances this time are different from the Gulf War,” Maeda said.

Social Democratic Party head Takako Doi said it is one thing to condemn the terrorists and another to support the U.S. retaliation. “Retaliation will trigger more retaliation, which will claim further innocent victims,” the staunch defender of Article 9 said. “Resorting to arms will not lead to a solution.”

Doi figures Japan should act as a mediator between the U.S. and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan through its own diplomatic channels.

But the opposition camp, which 10 years ago acted in unison against sending SDF troops to the Persian Gulf, does not appear united in their views this time round.

Nobuhiko Suto of the Democratic Party of Japan suggested that Japan provide medical aid and build refugee camps for those fleeing Afghanistan, adding that the government should not push for an SDF deployment.

But DPJ members are deeply split. Seiji Maehara has gone as far as to propose revising the interpretation of Article 9 to allow collective defense with the U.S.

“The important thing is that Japan, as an ally, grieves with the U.S. and takes specific actions to show that it will fight against terrorism together with the U.S.,” Maehara said.