Japan is working to overcome legal restrictions and procedural problems related to its defense strategy.

With tensions in Asia growing, the greatest risks involve low-intensity conflicts rather than full-scale military attacks. But critics say that Japan’s dependence on the policing function of the Coast Guard or Self-Defense Forces isn’t enough to respond swiftly and effectively to such threats.

Low-intensity conflicts, also called gray zone scenarios, fall short of full-scale military attacks but can pose major security problems. In Japan, these potential attacks are viewed as a dilemma because they are too big to be addressed by one or the other, but might fall short of the conditions that would be required to launch an armed response by the SDF, which requires aggression deemed as a premeditated attack by a sovereign nation.

“The Coast Guard alone cannot deal with the situation,” said Koichi Furusho, former chief of staff of the Maritime Self-Defense Force. “We need a comprehensive law to enable the Coast Guard and the SDF to operate seamlessly in terms of time, organization, and space.”

On Tuesday, the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito will start discussing the gray-zone scenarios presented by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to fill the gap and prevent potential aggressors from threatening Japan’s interests.

It is believed that gray-zone scenarios can be handled without the use of collective self-defense, which is a more contentious issue. Coalition partner New Komeito is against legalizing the use of the right since it involves reinterpreting the pacifist Constitution instead of amending it. The coalition has thus decided to discuss the gray-zone cases first.

The center of this discussion revolves around whether and how the SDF should take on more of the coast guard’s policing roles and whether the SDF restrictions on weapons use can be eased without increasing political tensions, especially when Japan and China are chasing each other around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

The number of Chinese ships entering contiguous waters and intruding into Japanese waters has spiked since the Democratic Party of Japan-led team of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda put the Senkakus into state ownership in September 2012. Even though there no serious clashes have occurred, any mismanagement could spiral into a military confrontation.

One scenario presented earlier this month by a panel of experts hand-picked by Abe involves a surprise landing on remote islands by commandos disguised as fishermen. Many politicians assume this would take the form of Chinese commandos raising a flag on the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed both by China and Taiwan.

At the moment, the Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for patrolling Japanese waters. But the defense minister can order the SDF to assume its policing authority, with the prime minister’s approval, if an incident develops into a low-intensity conflict that exceeds the Coast Guard’s policing abilities.

The SDF can’t use lethal force except for self-defense or during evacuations because commanders are bound by the law governing police officers and the Japan Coast Guard Law.

New Komeito says the restriction should be relaxed so that the SDF can counter the threat more effectively without a full-scale counterattack.

Critics also point out that transfers of responsibility should be done swiftly because aggressors could land while the government is still debating whether to pass enforcement authority to the SDF.

Since its inception in 1954, the SDF has exercised policing authority on three occasions off Japan’s coast. The first was in 1999, when the SDF dispatched destroyers to monitor two suspicious fishing boats suspected of being run by a North Korean intelligence unit, off the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, which faces the Sea of Japan.

Although the suspicious vessels were outrunning the Coast Guard, the Cabinet of Keizo Obuchi deemed the situation to be a case of illegal fishing. It was only several hours later that the defense minister dispatched SDF destroyers to deal with the rogue boats.

Another scenario presented by the panel suggested the SDF should be free to use force to repel foreign submarines found in Japan’s territorial waters if they ignore warnings to leave.

An incident of this kind took place in 2004, when the defense minister scrambled MSDF resources after a P-3C anti-submarine surveillance aircraft detected a Chinese sub in waters near the Sakishima Islands, which cover the Miyako Islands and Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.

But some recent reports say this scenario will not be discussed because it is outweighed by the greater risk of it developing into a full-fledged military confrontation.

The ruling coalition is engaging in a delicate balancing to avoid boosting tensions with potential aggressors. While the LDP advocates that the SDF should be in the vanguard in countering low-intensity conflicts, New Komeito believes that role should remain with the coast guard, to avoid escalating tensions unnecessarily.

“If the MSDF is dispatched, the potential foe will counter with its military, increasing the danger that the incident will develop into a military clash,” said New Komeito Vice President Kazuo Kitagawa last week. Kitagawa is deputy chair of the coalition talks, which are headed by LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura.

Experts also said that there is no clear standard in international law for dealing with low-intensity conflicts, and that Japan could be sued in the International Criminal Justice if its actions are viewed as unbalanced or disproportional.

Moreover, Tetsuo Kotani, a senior research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, said an inflated response by Japan might discourage the U.S. from defending it under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

President Barack Obama confirmed that the Senkakus are covered under the treaty during his visit to Japan in April.

“The U.S. will come to protect Japan only when Japan is undoubtedly under attack. They will come when Japan alone cannot handle the situation,” said Kotani. “But if Japan’s overreaction results in an escalation in the confrontation, it would be hard for the U.S. to justify intervention.”

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