Japan always looks before leaping. Nearly a decade after the Persian Gulf War, the nation remains highly averse to taking risks and is even timid about participating in international peacekeeping efforts in regional conflicts.

The border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a good example. The two countries on the impoverished Horn of Africa on Tuesday signed a comprehensive peace agreement that formally ends the two-year conflict that cost tens of thousands of lives.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed the accord in a ceremony at a government-owned resort outside the Algerian capital of Algiers in the presence of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

About 4,200 U.N. peacekeepers will be deployed along the Ethiopia-Eritrea border to monitor the ceasefire. The deployment is expected to be completed by February.

Annan said earlier this month that the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, with military personnel from 27 countries, would work with both sides to build confidence.

According to Japanese government sources, the U.N. has informally asked Japan to participate in the UNMEE by sending at least several Self-Defense Forces personnel to patrol the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, as individuals, instead of as a unit.

Despite the U.N. request, however, it is unlikely that Japan will send SDF personnel, due to sharp differences of opinion within the government, especially between the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Agency.

The sources said that the Foreign Ministry strongly insists that SDF personnel be dispatched to the UNMEE, claiming that it would not violate the five principles set down in 1992 for Japan’s participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

The Ministry believes that active participation in U.N. peacekeeping efforts is essential for Japan’s bid to win a permanent seat on the powerful U.N. Security Council, the sources said. The current five permanent council members are Russia, China, France, Britain and the United States.

The Defense Agency is reluctant about sending SDF personnel, however. This is partly because it thinks Japan’s participation in the UNMEE — which is a relatively low-profile mission, unlike the U.N.’s missions on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and some other regions — will get little recognition from the international community, the sources said.

During the Gulf War, which was triggered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, the U.S.-led multinational force launched a fierce bombing campaign against Iraq.

The U.S. administration of then President George Bush described the Iraqi invasion of its neighbor as a serious threat to efforts to create a new global order in the wake of the Cold War.

Although Japan donated well over $10 billion to the multinational forces to avoid damaging ties with the U.S., its most important ally, it did not dispatch SDF personnel, citing constraints under its peace-loving, post-World War II constitution.

Japan’s “check book” diplomacy invited a barrage of international criticism. The U.S. said that the world’s second-largest economy, which was — and still is — heavily dependent on the Gulf region for its oil, was not making enough of a contribution to ensure international peace and stability.

The Gulf War stirred up a hot debate in Japan over how far the country should go in “sweating” for — or contributing personnel to — international peacekeeping efforts, instead of just chipping in money.

After months of raucous discussions, the Diet enacted a landmark bill in June 1992 enabling SDF personnel to join limited U.N. peacekeeping missions.

Under the new law, Japan sent noncombat SDF personnel to Cambodia to join U.N. peacekeeping operations in the runup to the war-torn Southeast Asian country’s elections in the spring of 1993. It was the first time since World War II that SDF personnel have been dispatched on such a mission.

The five principles set down in 1992 for Japan’s participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations include the existence of a ceasefire agreement among warring parties and the neutrality of deployed U.N. forces. The use of firearms by SDF personnel is also strictly limited to purposes of self-defense.

Under the 1992 law, Japan has dispatched noncombat SDF personnel to other U.N. peacekeeping missions, including the Golan Heights. But under the constraints of the five principles, no SDF personnel were sent to join U.N. peacekeeping operations in East Timor, which is now in transition to full independence from Indonesia.

The Defense Agency may also be worried that it might become entangled in domestic politics by sending SDF personnel to the Horn of Africa, at a time when Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, is staunchly advocating a more active Japanese role in U.N. peacekeeping efforts.

Apparently reflecting on Japan’s failure to send SDF personnel to join U.N. operations in East Timor, Hatoyama has called for revising the five principles, claiming that Japan should be allowed to participate in such efforts even if no ceasefire agreement exists among warring parties.

The Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partners — New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — have discussed a possible expansion of Japan’s role in U.N. peacekeeping operations under the 1992 law, including a revision of the five principles.

But no decision has been made yet, largely due to New Komeito’s reluctance about expanding Japan’s role, particularly ahead of next summer’s Upper House elections.

While the Diet has dragged its feet on legislative changes necessary for a greater Japanese role in U.N. peacekeeping efforts, international pressure on the country to expand its role is expected to increase.

A special advisory panel to U.N. Secretary General Annan compiled a report this summer calling for the strengthening of U.N. peacekeeping operations, which is expected to be high on Annan’s agenda when he makes a planned visit to Tokyo in late January.

A nonpartisan group of U.S. experts also recently released a report calling for Japan to play a greater role under the U.S-Japan bilateral security treaty and participate more actively in U.N. peacekeeping operations by revising the five principles.

The new U.S. administration of George W. Bush, while placing more importance on ties with Japan than the current administration of Bill Clinton, is expected to call on Japan to play an even greater role in ensuring global security, including taking a more active role in U.N. peacekeeping efforts.

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