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Ruling bloc spars over defense shift

Inclusion of mainland landing scenario angers New Komeito

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

On Tuesday the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, New Komeito, began considering 16 scenarios that might highlight legal and procedural problems in Japan’s defense strategy amid a changing security environment in Asia.

The scenarios included four so-called gray-zone events, four international peacekeeping-related scenarios, and eight instances in which Japan might have to resort to the use of force.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe drew up the scenarios after receiving a report by a handpicked defense-reform panel earlier this month.

But the list stops short of mentioning the contentious issue of collective self-defense, even though cases involving the use of force are based on situations that would require Japan to exercise the right — such as defending U.S. vessels transporting Japanese nationals or shooting down missiles targeting U.S. territories.

It is likely that the LDP struck out the phrase to mitigate concerns by New Komeito. The party, backed by lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, is not necessarily against the proposed missions but is reluctant to take them on in the name of collective self-defense.

Aiming to reach agreement by the end of the current Diet session on June 22, the LDP initially hoped to wrap up discussions on gray-zone scenarios on Tuesday. But the parties ended talks without reaching a consensus.

“We cannot necessarily say that we have agreement on the first and second cases we touched on. We will explain the problems with those scenarios to the government and will hear from it next time,” said LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura, who chairs the coalition talks.

Both parties spent much time asking government representatives questions about the first scenario, which involves a surprise landing by an armed group, and briefly touched on the second scenario, under which the Self Defense Forces would protect private vessels at sea where the SDF is conducting drills.

While many politicians assumed the first case relates to possible contingencies on the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan, the government said it also covers potential incursions on remote parts of the Japanese coast which the SDF can reach but police cannot.

The assertion surprised some delegates.

“Government officials have never before said a surprise landing scenario also covers the mainland. I said it is outrageous that they did not tell us this until today,” said New Komeito Vice President Kazuo Kitagawa, who serves as the deputy chair of the coalition talks.

New Komeito has been saying that the scenarios should be realistic ones but Kitagawa said that the government only presented “rare cases” concerning the gray-zone incidents, as it assumed that the SDF always happened to be in the vicinity of potential incidents.

Participants also called on the government to specify concrete countermeasures that it wants the ruling camp to discuss.

One of the focuses of the gray-zone cases is whether the SDF should assume more policing authority in dealing with low-intensity conflicts, which have a potential to develop into full-fledged military attacks.

Currently, the Japan Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for policing foreign vessels trespassing in Japan’s territorial waters. But the defense minister can order the SDF to exert policing authority with the prime minister’s approval if the situation escalates and the coast guard is unable to handle it.

Since its inception, the SDF has exercised policing authority on three occasions, including a case in 1999 when two suspicious boats, presumably North Korean spy boats, entered Japanese waters off the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, and one in 2004 when a Chinese submarine was detected within Japanese waters.

But in those two cases the SDF was not ordered swiftly to engage the foreign aggressors or to seize them, as the government feared sending troops in would cause an escalation.