Defense policy emerges from 2001 with new face

Kyodo News About 110 sailors aboard the Maritime Self-Defense Force minesweeper Uraga reached Yokosuka port in Kanagawa Prefecture on New Year’s Eve and were received with welcoming cheers by their families and fellow MSDF ranks.

The vessel returned from a mission to deliver relief supplies for Afghan refugees in Pakistan under a special antiterrorism law enacted Oct. 29. The 5,650-ton Uraga was one of six MSDF ships sent to the Indian Ocean to give logistic assistance to U.S.-led forces attacking terrorist targets in Afghanistan and to support Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

“I’m proud of our mission,” said a 27-year-old sailor who was returning home after a journey that began Nov. 25.

The Uraga’s skipper, Kei Shinjo, added, “I think our mission did a bit of good for the Japanese people.”

2001 marked a turning point in Japan’s defense policy — the first overseas dispatch of a Self-Defense Forces contingent to provide assistance to combat forces since World War II.

The Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan gave Tokyo impetus to take a more active role in international security.

Sept. 11 forced many nations, including Japan, to review national security strategies to counter international terrorism.

Tokyo’s initial reaction to the hijacked jetliner suicide attacks was predictably slow.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi held a news conference half a day later, in contrast to other world leaders who responded immediately and vowed on TV to fight terror. Japan’s unhurried response to the 1991 Persian Gulf War also drew international criticism.

But Japan acted differently in one respect this time around. The enactment of legislation to allow the SDF to support the U.S.-led military campaign against terrorism was remarkably swift compared with past parliamentary action involving Japan’s armed forces.

Despite anticipation of sluggish debate on whether the legislation would run counter to the spirit of the pacifist Constitution, it only took about three weeks for the special antiterrorism law and amendments to the SDF Law to be enacted.

Diet deliberations on a bill allowing the SDF to take part in U.N. peacekeeping operations took nine months before it was enacted in June 1992.

It took over a year to enact three bills for defense guidelines laws that enable the SDF to provide U.S. forces with logistic support in emergencies in “areas surrounding Japan.” They were enacted in May 1999.

Reflecting on 2001 during a recent news conference, Defense Agency chief Gen Nakatani called it “a dramatic year,” adding, “2001 became the first year that humankind had to fight a new group threat, not a state.”

Comparing the recent legislation with a triple jump in track and field, Nakatani described the 1992 law on SDF involvement in U.N. peacekeeping operations as a hop, the 1999 guidelines laws as steps, “And I call the enactment of the special antiterrorism law a jump.”

Toshiyuki Shikata, a professor at Teikyo University, believes there will be no more warfare between states over sovereignty in the 21st century, and speculated, “From now on, military action will mean correcting a nation violating international rules, by (involving) all other nations.”

Shikata, a former lieutenant general, said Japan should map out the next National Defense Program Outlines and lift its ban on collective defense, since the antiterrorism law effectively acknowledges that right.

Tetsuo Maeda, a professor of security at Tokyo International University, said the SDF dispatch violated the Constitution and the government’s past interpretations of the supreme code.

“The government exploited the people’s compassion and fear stemming from peculiar events, such as the Sept. 11 terror attacks, to enact a series of laws, including the antiterrorism law,” Maeda said.

“In order to deal with regional conflicts, Japan-U.S. security relations expanded omnidirectionally after the end of the Cold War, though the security pact used to function for limited purposes, such as the threat of the former Soviet Union.”

Maeda said opposition parties are also to blame as they failed to effectively block the government’s moves.

In December, the Diet also passed an amendment to the 1992 peacekeeping operation law, giving greater powers to the SDF participating in U.N. peacekeeping forces, which was prohibited under a self-imposed restriction.

Limits on the use of weapons was also eased to enable SDF troops to use arms to protect their weapons or other nations’ peacekeepers.

Maeda is concerned about the expansion of Japan’s security role under what he terms the guise of international participation, and maintained that constitutional debate has been left behind.

Taking advantage of the momentum of last year’s developments, the Defense Agency now aims to enact long-shelved legislation granting a wide range of powers to the SDF in the event of an attack on Japan. It wants to enact it during the ordinary Diet session that convenes this month.

Despite the accelerating expansion of the powers and duties of Japan’s armed forces, Nakatani tried to make assurances that the country has sufficient civilian control over them, saying, “Japan’s parliamentary system of government also helps to reinforce civilian control.”

The November dispatch of the MDSF flotilla required Diet approval within 20 days after the deployment order, and the Diet also controls the defense budget, Nakatani said.