Staff writer

A Lower House special committee will start intensive deliberations today on bills covering the revised Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines, nearly a year after the bills were submitted to the Diet.

The nub of the Diet parley will be how the original bills are going to be amended through the deliberations and whether the amended bills will manage to clear the Lower House before Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi calls on U.S. President Bill Clinton in May.

With amendments deemed inevitable for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which even with its coalition ally, the Liberal Party, lacks a majority in the Upper House, the LDP has been engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations with opposition parties, mainly New Komeito, to lay the groundwork for a consensus.

Sources say the LDP has so far agreed to two points:

1) to include a clause stating that “Japan’s support for U.S. forces will not exceed the purpose of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty;”

2) to require Diet approval of cooperation with the U.S., including operations by the Self-Defense Forces, instead of just notifying the legislature after the fact, as proposed in the original bills.

Obuchi, however, flatly denied last week that the LDP is considering any amendments, apparently in a bid to dodge criticism from left-leaning opposition groups that the government must withdraw the bills should it admit any defects in them. “It is not a fact that the government is studying revisions to the bills,” Obuchi told a plenary session Friday in the Upper House, where the bills were officially introduced by the government for the first time.

Under the new guidelines, which were agreed to in 1997 by Tokyo and Washington, the SDF as well as the Japanese public will be expected to provide logistic support for U.S. forces should an emergency threatening Japan’s peace and security occur in “areas surrounding Japan.”

While the government maintains that this concept is “not geographic, but situational,” such an explanation does not seem to have persuaded opposition parties and many citizens who fear the SDF’s activities may expand to follow those of U.S. forces.

The government also says logistic support by Japan does not constitute military action because it will be provided only in “rear areas,” or noncombat zones, and therefore does not violate the Constitution.

Even many in Nagata-cho, the political quarter, still find it hard to grasp the government’s explanation. “No matter how much one insists military action is not taking place in a certain area, if a missile falls there, the area is already a battle zone,” Eijiro Hata of the Democratic Party of Japan told the Friday session. “And it’s hard to understand why transporting soldiers, weapons and ammunition does not constitute military action,” he asserted.

In an emergency defined under the new guidelines, the SDF must also engage in search-and-rescue operations for possibly wounded soldiers from the U.S. and other nations as well as conduct ship inspections based on U.N. Security Council resolutions to enforce economic sanctions.

The Liberal Party is also cautious when it comes to security issues. The party insists that regardless of U.N. resolutions, the Constitution does not allow Japanese ships to fire warning shots — a right granted in U.N.-backed inspections.

New Komeito, a key player in the guidelines deliberations, is expected to refrain from expressing outright support of the bills until mid-April, when nationwide local elections are over.

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