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Officials push to scrap limits on SDF missions

Troops could shift from strictly 'noncombat' roles

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took another step toward his goal of drastically relaxing self-imposed restrictions on the role of the Self-Defense Forces in U.N.-authorized joint military operations on Tuesday, with his government suggesting the ruling coalition scrap the notion of “noncombat zones” to curb SDF activities.

The move, a departure from the traditional limits set by the past governments, could allow the SDF to assume more proactive roles such as providing arms and ammunition to coalition forces.

The war-renouncing Constitution has been interpreted as banning these expanded SDF roles — a concept called “buryoku koshi tono ittaika” (integration with use of force) — or cases in which SDF operations could be seen as being integrated into other countries’ combat operations or use of force.

The suggestion was made during coalition talks on enhancing Japan’s defense strategies, on upgrading its role in peacekeeping missions, and on whether to allow the exercise of the right to collective self-defense. The discussions are based on 16 security scenarios provided by the Abe administration.

Government representatives at the talks suggested a change in what defines the “integration with use of force,” calling on the ruling bloc to scrap the conventional criteria for limiting SDF missions, defined by such concepts as “noncombat zone” and “rear-area support.”

Article 9 of the Constitution prohibits Japan from forming an integral part in any use of force. The restriction theoretically bans Japan from refueling U.S. aircraft taking off for combat missions, providing food and water in combat zones or arms or ammunition to coalition troops.

In reality, previous governments have allowed the SDF to conduct some of those missions in conflicts such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq using the notions of “noncombat zone” and “rear-area support.”

Instead, government officials suggested the SDF be allowed to conduct those operations unless: the SDF is close to the combat zone; it is contributing to troops engaged in a combat operation; it is providing combat equipment; its mission is closely related to each military operation.

These conditions were originally shown by Masasuke Omori, then secretary-general of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, during the Diet session in 1997.

Abe has already suggested that standards for SDF activities be reconsidered during the Lower House budgetary committee last week. But New Komeito, the Liberal Democratic Party’s junior coalition partner, is wary that such new standards will expand logistical support missions as far as the frontline.

A high-ranking official in the Abe government even said that Japan could possibly provide arms and ammunition to troops from other nations serving on the frontline, when asked by New Komeito, which criticized the standard as drastically different from the previous ones.

“These standards could allow the SDF to conduct any missions other than actual combat, said New Komeito Vice President Kazuo Kitagawa after the coalition talks. “We asked the government to come up with concrete examples as to what the SDF can and cannot do if these standards apply.”

Abe wants the coalition camp to expedite the talk so that its outcome will be reflected in guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation, which are slated to be revised later this year.

However, a New Komeito executive dismissed the prospect of rushing through the talks, saying there are many loopholes in the government’s arguments, and that will require that the coalition camp to devote much more time to even reach the contentious issue of collective self-defense.

For example, the two parties have not even struck any agreement in the so-called gray zone scenarios in which the parties are basically on the same page that there should be an upgraded mechanism to swiftly shift policing authority from the Japan Coast Guard to the SDF under emergency situations.

Currently, it requires an order from the defense minister with prime ministerial approval for the SDF to take up a policing role, but it could take considerable time to reach an answer.

New Komeito is pushing for smooth coordination between the SDF and the coast guard, but the government and the LDP are more bent on legislation to give legal authority to the SDF without any executive orders