A slippery slope to combat

The Abe administration on June 3 proposed new conditions for the Self-Defense Forces to take part in overseas missions to support the armed forces of other countries — with a view especially toward expanding the SDF’s role in assisting multinational forces that are created based on United Nations resolutions.

Just three days later, it modified these conditions in the face of opposition from New Komeito, the Liberal Democratic Party’s coalition partner. But even these modified conditions would radically change the nature of SDF missions overseas and pave the way for the SDF to engage in activities in combat areas, which would greatly raise the risk of Japan being drawn into an armed conflict.

In addition, the fact that the Abe administration altered its proposed conditions so quickly deepens suspicions about the administration’s prudence and sincerity in dealing with the overall direction of the nation’s security policy and the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9.

Even as previous governments began expanding the scope of SDF activities abroad in the 1990s, they upheld the principle that the SDF cannot engage in missions that could be integrated into the use of force by other countries in view of Article 9′s ban on the “use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels engaged in operations to clear Iraqi mines in the Persian Gulf only after the Gulf War ended in 1991. In the Afghan and Iraq wars, Japan limited SDF activities in support of multinational forces to such missions as logistical supply and transportation of foreign troops in what was defined as noncombat zones as well as to post-conflict reconstruction efforts.

In the June 3 talks between the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s calls for review of Japan’s security legislations, the administration proposed easing conditions on SDF activities overseas.

It specifically said that an SDF mission would be considered to be integrated into the use of force by other countries’ military and be prohibited only when it met all of the following four conditions: (1) the SDF supports other countries’ military units currently engaged in combat; (2) materials and services provided by the SDF to the other armed forces are directly used in combat; (3) the SDF’s activities take place in a combat site; and (4) the SDF’s support is closely connected to other military forces’ combat activities.

Under this criteria it would have been possible for the SDF to provide weapons and ammunition to other countries’ armed forces when fighting was temporarily suspended, paving the way for Japanese weapons to be used in combat. The SDF would also have engaged in missions in or very close to combat sites as long as the materials and services that it provided would not be directly used in combat.

New Komeito opposed these conditions, citing the possibility that the SDF could become involved in fighting under them. On June 6 the Abe administration withdrew them and presented three new conditions: (1) the SDF would not engage in support activities at the site of a battle taking place; (2) the SDF would withdraw if fighting takes place at the site of its support activities; but (3) the SDF would not withdraw as long as it is engaged in humanitarian assistance such as rescuing injured soldiers or civilians.

Even under the new criteria it would be possible for the SDF to provide weapons and ammunition to other countries’ armed forces engaged in combat missions.

If the SDF provides supplies such as food, water and medicine to other countries’ military units engaged in combat, Japan would naturally be regarded as an enemy by their opponents. SDF members deployed in such logistical missions as well as in humanitarian assistance missions could become targets, potentially drawing SDF units into combat. Japanese civilians in the country at war, such as members of nongovernmental organizations engaged in humanitarian efforts, could similarly be targeted.

In addition, in actual battle situations it would be very difficult for SDF members to judge when the fighting has stopped. As such, the new criteria could expose them to greater risks. The Abe administration should remember that the government’s current guideline provides a clear standard of judgment by SDF officers in such a situation. This not only protects SDF units but also reduces the danger of Japan being considered an enemy combatant.

The Abe administration appears intent on expanding the scope of SDF’s overseas missions under the guise of “proactive pacifism” as advocated by the prime minister. Abe has said that Japan will never take part in wars like the Gulf War and the Iraq War “for the purpose of using force.” But the new conditions that he is trying to set to govern SDF support activities for the armed forces of other countries could effectively circumvent the limitations under Article 9 of the Constitution and pave the way for its missions to be closely tied to the use of force in battle. New Komeito, LDP lawmakers and the opposition parties should do their utmost to defeat his efforts.