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Although the government has declined to state publicly whether it will support a U.S.-led war on Iraq, it has recently been considering how it might help the United States in the event of a conflict and how it can assist in the postwar rehabilitation of Iraq and surrounding countries.

Possible options include sending Self-Defense Forces units to provide logistic support for the U.S.-led operation, to assist in the reconstruction of roads and other infrastructure, and to help with the disposal of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological agents.

Existing law only allows the SDF to participate in reconstruction duties in line with United Nations peacekeeping missions.

The government has been contemplating new legislation to authorize SDF activities of this kind even when a situation is too volatile for the U.N. to launch peacekeeping operations. Whether this legislation materializes may depend greatly on what happens with Iraq.

The tide of international opinion appears to be turning against the U.S. case for war.

Accordingly, a senior government official involved in preparing an Iraq-related bill stated that, should the U.S. attack Iraq without a U.N. mandate, it would be difficult for Japan to back the U.S., let alone forge new legislation aimed at supporting these operations.

Some Defense Agency officials and Ground Self-Defense Force officers have voiced concern that they do not have the necessary expertise to deal with chemical and biological weapons.

Yet if some form of legislation were indeed enacted, it would mark yet a further expansion of the SDF’s scope of activities — a scenario the government has pushed strongly over the past decade.

Guided by the war-renouncing Constitution, the government has long maintained that the SDF will be used solely for the defense of Japan. Its deployment overseas was a taboo issue until the early 1990s.

Yet the government has revised and enacted laws enabling the SDF to engage in various missions abroad since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Japan was embarrassed diplomatically over its failure to dispatch personnel to augment its hefty financial support for the multinational force that evicted Iraq from Kuwait.

A new law and legal amendments enacted in 1992 paved the way for SDF units to participate in U.N. peacekeeping missions and overseas disaster relief activities; a 1994 revision to the law allows the deployment of SDF aircraft to evacuate Japanese nationals caught up in emergencies overseas; and a 1999 law allows the SDF to provide logistic support for U.S. forces in emergencies in undefined “areas surrounding Japan.”

To support the U.S.-led war on terror, triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the government enacted a law the following month allowing the SDF to provide U.S. operations in Afghanistan with logistic support, paving the way for the first SDF dispatch in a real war situation later in the year.

The government now appears to be preparing an Iraq-related version of the antiterrorism law. The question, according to some experts, is how far the expansion of the SDF’s role can be justified.

Tetsuo Maeda, a professor at Tokyo International University, argues that the debate should focus on how the SDF can be used as a tool with which Japan can contribute to international society.

Maeda said the Constitution, which is often cited as the grounds for opposing SDF activities, does not call for an inert Japan but instead argues that Japan should make an active contribution to the international community.

Having said this, Maeda argued that SDF support for a U.S.-led war on Iraq would not constitute an “international contribution.”

“The current U.S. policy tramples on the rule of international society established after World War II,” in which solutions to international disputes are sought through multinational efforts at the U.N., he said. “Becoming part of such U.S. operations cannot be justified.”

But Toshiyuki Shikata, a Teikyo University professor and former chief commander of the GSDF Northern Army, argued that Japan should base its course of action on its national interests.

Japan receives nearly 90 percent of its oil from the Middle East, so it should seek stability in that region by offering more “aggressive” support for a war on Iraq than for the offensive in Afghanistan, within constitutional limits, he said.

This support should include moving the Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers now deployed in the Indian Ocean, in line with the 2001 antiterrorism law, closer to the Persian Gulf to protect Japanese oil tankers, he said.

Japan should also seek to station some of its MSDF P-3C antisubmarine patrol aircraft in or around Pakistan to monitor tanker routes, he said.

These maneuvers should be authorized through the enactment of new legislation rather than through a stretched interpretation of the antiterrorism law, Shikata added.

He said that these actions would not constitute combat missions and that Japan would not be engaged in collective defense, which the government interprets as being banned by the Constitution.

The issue of whether Japan can distance itself from combat operations by insisting that it is merely providing “rear-area support” has long been a bone of contention.

Douglas Lummis, a former professor at Tsuda College, pointed out that the SDF units providing logistic support for the campaign against terrorist targets in Afghanistan are combatants under international law.

“While it may be that under Japanese law, they were not combatants in that war, Japanese law doesn’t matter, because where they were, i.e. in international waters, what applies is not Japanese law but international law,” he said.

Should war erupt against Iraq, Lummis also warned, there may be no clear line immediately drawn between “wartime” and “postwar,” and thus there would be no guarantee that SDF elements would be engaged in “postconflict” missions, including reconstruction efforts.

Brad Glosserman, director of research at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum CSIS, said that the SDF’s participation in reconstruction or humanitarian operations in Iraq may still raise constitutional concerns. But he said Japan should exercise the right to collective defense under certain conditions, adding this “is a decision for Japan to make.”

“The question, as always, is what sort of international contribution Japan will make, and whether it has the courage of its convictions, the creativity to make up for its inability to act in more conventional ways, and the capacity to explain the difference between the two and to make the case for Japan’s own course,” Glosserman said.

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