The special antiterrorism law that expires Nov. 1 is the hottest dispute in domestic politics and could even determine the fate of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and his administration.
The stalemate over extending the law led in part to Shinzo Abe’s resignation as prime minister in September, and observers say it could even prompt Fukuda to dissolve the Lower House and trigger a realignment of political forces, if the opposition camp’s resistance prevails.
Following are basic questions and answers about the law and issues related to it:
What is the special antiterrorism law and how was it enacted?
The law was enacted Nov. 2, 2001, to give logistic support in the Indian Ocean to the multinational Maritime Interdiction Operation, which is part of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom (known as OEF-MIO) targeting al-Qaida terrorists and Taliban Islamic fundamentalists in and around Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
The bill was drawn up by the government within a month of the Sept. 11 attacks, and enacted by the Diet three weeks later — unusually fast for legislation in Japan.
The bill was the product of strong initiative by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who had close ties with U.S. President George W. Bush.
What exactly has Japan been doing under the law?
The government drew up a basic operational plan and dispatched Maritime Self-Defense Force oilers and destroyers to the Western Indian Ocean in January 2002. The deployment area includes part of the Persian Gulf.
The MSDF mission is to provide fuel and water to warships participating in OEF-MIO in efforts to cut off trafficking in weapons, narcotics and financial and other sources from terrorists, the government said.
An MSDF oiler and destroyer escort are currently deployed. The oiler is one of the four fuel-supply vessels for the maritime mission, whose participants include the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Pakistan, Canada and New Zealand.
Last week, the government submitted to the Diet a new bill to replace the current special antiterrorism law. What’s the difference between the two?
The key points are basically the same, but the new bill omits the need for Diet approval to dispatch the MSDF vessels, while the current law requires de facto permission.
The bill would limit the scope of MSDF activities to supplying fuel and water to the multinational naval ships. It also would omit search and rescue operations and humanitarian assistance that are included in the current law.
Under the bill, the MSDF logistic support mission’s duration would be one year only, and an extension would be needed thereafter to continue the operation.
What’s so controversial about the MSDF operation?
The government considers the MSDF mission a symbol of Japan’s commitment to the Japan-U.S. military alliance, and has repeatedly expressed its determination to Washington to extend the special law beyond its Nov. 1 expiry. The special law has been extended three times since its 2001 enactment.
But the opposition parties, centered on the Democratic Party of Japan, oppose the extension, claiming some of the fuel provided by the MSDF was also used by U.S. forces for the Iraq war, which has drawn much more criticism in Japan than Afghanistan-related operations.
What are the political implications of the ruling bloc-opposition battle over the law?
The opposition gained an Upper House majority in July in a historic victory and now chairs several key committees in the chamber. The opposition has the power to vote down any government-sponsored bill in the chamber, or paralyze overall Diet sessions by stopping all deliberation.
Under the Constitution, any decision in the Upper House can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in the Lower House, where the ruling bloc holds a decisive majority.
However, observers say the ruling bloc would need strong public support to exercise this power, and such action has been extremely rare — no bill has been overridden since 1957.
Analysts say that to regain a sense of control and restart Diet deliberations, Fukuda may have to dissolve the Lower House and call a snap election to seek the judgment of the voters.
What side does public opinion fall on?
Initially, opinion polls found that a majority of voters opposed extending the mission — the key issue the opposition has focused on the current Diet battle.
But recent polls show more voters are behind the mission than before as political debate heats up.
An Oct. 6-7 poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun showed 49 percent in favor of the extension and 37 percent opposed, while an Asahi Shimbun Oct. 13-14 survey found that 39 percent are for and 44 percent are against the extension.
DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa staunchly opposes extension of the special law, saying the MSDF’s logistic support violates the war-renouncing Constitution. But he at the same time argues Japan can send ground troops to serve a more dangerous multinational security role in Afghanistan even if it might require use of military force. What’s his argument?
Article 9 of the Constitution reads: “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”
It is widely interpreted that Japan is allowed to use military force only for self-defense, and use of force overseas or direct support for use of force by other countries is prohibited under the Constitution.
To get around such constraints, the government argued that under the antiterrorism law, Japanese vessels would only engage in logistic support for other countries’ forces, and those activities would be limited to “noncombat zones.” The government says the MSDF’s mission does not violate the Constitution because it cannot be regarded as “use of force.”
Ozawa, however, has argued that logistic support is the essential part of modern warfare, and no theoretical line can be drawn between frontline battles and logistic support, and thus the MSDF mission is unconstitutional.
Ozawa has also argued that even though many DPJ members disagree, Japan can send troops to join a multinational force only if the mission is authorized by a United Nations resolution.
Ozawa claims the U.S. started OEF as a defensive war against terrorists and the operation was not the result of a U.N. resolution, although the Security Council later adopted a resolution whose preamble welcomes the operation. While the Constitution prohibits Japan’s participation in a war that was waged as a sovereign right of another country, the U.N.-led peace activities are “of a totally different nature,” he says.
Meanwhile, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, which engages in security-keeping operations in the war-torn country, was launched based on a U.N. resolution, and therefore Japanese troops’ participation in ISAF would not violate the Constitution, according to Ozawa’s argument.
Has Ozawa’s position been widely accepted by experts and other DPJ members?
Probably not. Some DPJ members, including former policy chief Yukio Edano and former President Seiji Maehara, have questioned Ozawa’s argument, although they have not openly opposed it.
Some experts also say Ozawa’s argument is out of touch with the reality of the ISAF operations in Afghanistan.
Kenji Isezaki, a professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, noted the ISAF coordinates its activities with the U.N. but it is solely under NATO command.
“The United Nations won’t take command (of peacekeeping troops) unless the situation has stabilized. But the ISAF is engaging in something like war” in addition to security operations in the country, Isezaki said.
Ozawa’s argument on ISAF participation is politically motivated and is mainly for the sake of domestic debate over if and how Japan can send Self-Defense Forces elements overseas, the professor said.