WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama asked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their summit in Tokyo in April for the Self-Defense Forces to take a more active role in U.N.-led peacekeeping operations in Africa to help fight terrorism there, a U.S. government source said Monday.
Abe said in response that he will study the idea of dispatching more SDF troops to the region, where tensions are mounting due to the growing presence of Islamic extremists, including Boko Haram militants, the source said.
The Abe administration is trying to claim a bigger security role for Japan by expanding SDF involvement in peacekeeping operations and by attempting to lift the self-imposed ban on using collective self-defense, or coming to the aid of an ally under armed attack, the source said.
Obama is believed to have encouraged Japan to be more involved in helping to stabilize Africa, given Tokyo’s attempt to be more proactive in security, according to the source.
Obama was quoted by the source as telling Abe during their talks about the need to take measures against terrorism and to ensure stability in Africa, with increased Japanese involvement in peacekeeping operations desirable toward that end.
Obama did not specify where he wants Japan to send SDF troops. There are nine peacekeeping operations in Africa, but the SDF is only involved in the U.N. Mission in the Republic of South Sudan, or UNMISS. The U.S. leader’s prodding could prompt Japan to send SDF personnel to a new peacekeeping area or give them new activities, the source said.
In a joint statement issued after the summit, Japan and the United States said they are “committed to promoting peace, stability, and economic growth throughout the world, including in Africa.”
Japanese government officials, when briefing reporters about the outcome of the Abe-Obama summit, did not mention that the two leaders talked about an SDF dispatch to a peacekeeping operation in Africa.
Political experts say the move was apparently intended to avoid influencing debate in Japan about the right to collective self-defense, which remains a politically sensitive and divisive issue, and the act of defending foreign troops in peacekeeping operations.
Abe vowed on May 15 to get Japan more engaged in peacekeeping operations to ensure global peace and stability. He also said the act of SDF protecting other foreign troops engaged in peacekeeping operations will also be studied.
Obama, for his part, said in his foreign policy speech over the weekend that the “most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism” and stressed the need to engage in efforts to stabilize Somalia and Mali in Africa.