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Abe may get freer hand to deploy SDF in ‘gray zone’ incidents

Kyodo

The government is considering giving prime ministers a free hand in mobilizing the Self-Defense Forces to respond swiftly to “gray-zone” incidents, sources said Sunday.

Such power might be imbued through advance approval from the Cabinet, allowing the SDF to quickly respond to incidents that could threaten Japanese interests, such as small-scale attacks on commercial shipping vessels or illegally landings on remote Japanese islands.

But making mobilization easier, observers say, could raise the possibility of armed clashes erupting because rapid SDF involvement could give a foreign country a pretext for launching an attack on Japan.

The subject will be raised between officials of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, when they continue discussions Tuesday on the government’s aggressive stance on revamping national security.

The government also aims to revise the SDF law accordingly during an extraordinary Diet session in the fall, but that may not happen, given New Komeito’s position that the Japan Coast Guard should be the first-responder when gray-zone incidents threaten Japanese waters.

Some politicians in the ruling bloc fear that deploying the SDF from the beginning could be interpreted as Japan initiating military action.

Under the current rules of engagement, the Japan Coast Guard and the police are the ones who are supposed to deal with situations where combatants disguised as fishermen threaten to take a remote Japanese island. Only if they are unable to deal with the situation can the SDF be mobilized under the SDF law.

Some government officials have voiced concern about this arrangement because obtaining Cabinet approval to mobilize the SDF would take too long in a pressing situation.

Under the government’s envisioned plan, the SDF law would be revised to read that the prime minister may approve an SDF mobilization if there is a “special need” for it, according to the sources.

The coast guard is currently patrolling the waters around the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, a remote group of uninhabited islands claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu and Taiwan, which calls them Tiaoyutai.

China has been sending its new coast guard ships to the waters as well as other government vessels and aircraft on a regular basis, heightening tensions between the two sides.