Securing Japanese safety abroad

Following the deaths of 10 Japanese working for the Yokohama-based JGC Corp. during the seizure by Islamic militants of a natural gas complex in the Sahara desert in Algeria, the Liberal Democratic Party and the government began discussing how to revise the Self-Defense Forces Law.

They are proposing changes that would allow the SDF to rescue Japanese nationals involved in emergencies abroad such as armed conflicts and terrorist attacks by expanding the SDF’s transportation activities and liberalizing the use of weapons by SDF members.

Unfortunately the LDP and the government’s move seems more like an effort to lay the groundwork for liberalizing the current strict restrictions placed on the use of weapons by SDF members in foreign countries.

Moreover, given the SDF’s lack of experience conducting rescue operations in Japan, much less abroad in a foreign environment far from home, it is questionable whether such a change in the law would enhance the safety of Japanese abroad.

The government should consider more realistic and nonmilitary ways of securing the safety of Japanese nationals abroad. As a first step, it should study the lessons of the Algerian incident.

Even under the current SDF Law, it is possible for the SDF to transport Japanese nationals abroad by aircraft or ships if an emergency situation develops, but only on the condition that it is confirmed that local conditions are safe.

Following the incident in Algeria, some members of the LDP and the government began calling for allowing the SDF to utilize overland transport as well — even if the safety of local conditions is not confirmed — and for loosening restrictions on the use of weapons by the SDF.

They should, however, first consider whether the countries where emergency situations have developed would allow Japan to send SDF ground troops via overland transport. Such countries probably would probably not approve the dispatch of foreign military forces on their territory.

Furthermore, given the state of confusion that surrounds most emergency situations, it would be extremely difficult for the SDF to obtain accurate information. It is unrealistic to think that in such a situation, the SDF could engage in rescue operations.

Instead, the government should improve its intelligence gathering in areas prone to conflict or unrest so it can evacuate Japanese nationals in a timely manner when danger is considered imminent. The government could use commercial airliners or SDF aircraft or ships for this purpose.

The government is also considering beefing up personnel in diplomatic missions abroad as well as increasing the number of SDF attaches stationed in Japanese embassies. But budgetary restrictions will limit its scope of action.

Entities that have the most detailed information about local conditions in foreign countries are Japanese companies engaged in business there. The government should consider strengthening the sharing of information between such enterprises and its diplomatic missions. Japan should also improve its information sharing with foreign governments.

Japan and other countries also should step up cooperative efforts to reduce extreme poverty, which creates fertile conditions in which extremism and terrorism can take root and spread. The fact that Japan has no history of imperialism in Africa should enable it to make effective contributions to such endeavors there.