Coalition talks on upgrading Japan’s defense strategies took a twist Friday when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s team made an about-face and said the Self-Defense Forces will not conduct missions in combat zones, giving ground to pacifist ally New Komeito.
In a fourth round of talks, government officials backed away from their suggestion Tuesday that scrapping the notion of “non-combat zone” will allow the SDF to take on logistic missions in combat zones. Instead, it said Friday that SDF personnel cannot conduct such missions in areas where combat is taking place and will disengage from any such mission once fighting begins, with the exception of humanitarian search and rescue missions.
Abe’s government suggested earlier this week that the SDF could engage in logistic operations if it meets at least one of four conditions: Troops are not close to a combat zone; not contributing to troops engaged in any combat operation; are not providing combat equipment, and not on a mission closely related to each military operation.
But such a move would have meant a drastic departure from the standard called “buryoku no koshi tono ittaika,” or forming an integral part of combat missions with other countries, which is prohibited under Article 9 of the Constitution.
Under the previous proposal put forward by the government, the SDF would be able to provide logistic support — such as ammunition for troops from other countries — that are actually involved in fighting on the front lines.
The back-pedaling came after the suggestion met with staunch opposition from New Komeito, which is acting as a brake on policies that could been seen as deviating from the nation’s pacifist national credo while trying to maintain its place in the coalition alliance.
The coalition camp also virtually agreed to bolster a mechanism so that policing responsibility can be more quickly transferred from the Japan Coast Guard to the Self-Defense Forces in gray zone scenarios, such as when an armed force lands on remote Japanese islands without attacking Japan.
These scenarios are so named because they can still threaten Japanese interests while falling short of full-fledged military attacks. Responding to such scenarios currently requires an order from the defense minister plus Cabinet approval, but the coalition bloc agreed Friday to amend the system to improve coordination.
The government previously suggested revising a law to omit the process, but the coalition agreed not to legalize the process after New Komeito objected earlier this week. New Komeito argued that by giving too much power to the SDF with such legislation, Japan might court unnecessary and unwanted tensions from potential aggressors such as China.
“I do not think we will have an increase of cases in which the SDF will assume a policing role, because it would be granted the authority only when there is a grave incident,” said New Komeito Vice President Kazuo Kitagawa.
Abe’s government wants to expedite the defense talks, which are to review 16 security scenarios, so that the Cabinet can decide whether to allow Japan to legally exercise the right to collective self-defense and have that notion reflected when the guidelines on Japan-U.S. defense cooperation are revised by the end of the year.
Both parties briefly touched on eight of the scenarios at Friday’s meeting, which require Japan to use collective self-defense. But Kitagawa requested that the government show if it is really necessary to reinterpret the Constitution — instead of formally amending it — for Japan to protect U.S. vessels.
LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura, who is chairing the coalition talks, also requested that the government describe which scenario would specifically require the minimum and necessary exercise of collective self-defense to resolve.