Reference | FYI

EXPANDING ROLE OF SDF

Japanese deaths stir debate on hostage rescue capabilities

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

Following the gruesome executions of two Japanese by the Islamic State group, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems more eager than ever for legal authority to deploy Self-Defense Forces elements overseas, saying it is the government’s duty to rescue its citizens.

Although he has denied the possibility of deploying SDF assets to rescue Japanese in cases like the recent hostage crisis in Syria, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party hopes to loosen the strict SDF limits on weapons use to purportedly pave the way for rescue missions overseas.

The Cabinet’s decision last July to reinterpret the Constitution to sidestep war-renouncing Article 9 was a watershed moment. Now the ruling coalition is debating security legislation to give that decision teeth. The SDF rescue missions and weapons issues are believed to be a prominent part of the talks, and more than 10 bills are planned for submission to the Diet — after the April elections.

Here are some questions and answers about Japan’s modern-day military, its capabilities and Abe’s push to project force overseas:

Does the current Self-Defense Forces Law allow the SDF to rescue Japanese caught up in emergencies overseas?

No. The SDF is only allowed to transport them. Actual rescue operations are forbidden.

The law allows the SDF to use ships, aircraft and land vehicles to move Japanese and other nationals in emergencies.

The means of transport was initially limited to ships and aircraft, but after the January 2013 hostage crisis at a gas complex in Algeria, which left 10 Japanese dead, the government revised the SDF Law to include land vehicles because the restriction had prevented their bodies from being taken to the airport. This meant the Algerian government had to do it.

The revision also expanded the list of people who could be transported from those in need of protection to relatives of victims, doctors, Japanese government officials and other related personnel.

Did the reinterpretation of the Constitution widen the SDF’s scope in terms of overseas rescue missions?

Yes. Under the reinterpretation, the SDF would be allowed to conduct rescue missions abroad, but only under certain conditions.

These are:

1) Japan must have consent from a territorial state’s government.

2) The government in question must still wield authority in the area where the SDF plans to operate.

3) No “quasi-state organization” must exist in that area.

Can the SDF use weapons in rescue missions?

Yes. Under the reinterpretation of the charter, the SDF would be allowed limited use of weapons in accordance with “the strict principle of proportionality which is similar to the principle of police proportionality.”

This roughly means that if the other side uses handguns, then the SDF can use handguns.

Abe has said SDF rescue missions would be tantamount to the exercise of police authority. Use of weapons under the exercise of police authority does not violate Article 9, which bans “use of force” as a means of settling international disputes, according to the Cabinet’s reinterpretation of the Constitution.

The use of weapons, however, should not be against “a state or a quasi-state organization,” because that would violate Article 9.

Why did the Japanese government believe it would be unable to send troops to rescue the two hostages in Syria?

That situation did not meet the conditions required for an SDF deployment.

As Abe said to the Upper House Budget Committee on Feb. 2, Tokyo probably would not have received consent from either the Syrian or Iraqi government to deploy the SDF for a rescue mission.

Even if Tokyo had gained consent, neither wielded control over the area where the Japanese hostages were being held, thus they failed to meet the required condition that a state government must have authority over the area where the SDF planned to operate.

There is also the question of how to define the Islamic State group.

Given that the militant group effectively controls a large swaths of Iraq and Syria, Tokyo may have to view it as “a quasi-state organization” instead of a terrorist group.

If the government deems the group “a quasi-state organization,” this would foreclose on any chance to a rescue mission.

How does legalizing SDF overseas rescue missions sit with the public and lawmakers?

Public opinion varies, according to a poll by NHK conducted from Feb. 6 to 8.

About 25 percent of the respondents said it’s better for Japan to allow armed SDF elements to rescue Japanese overseas, 33 percent wanted Tokyo to ban such actions, and 36 percent were undecided.

Komeito and some members of the LDP are uncomfortable with the push to expand SDF activities abroad. Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi on Feb. 3 said “calm and careful” discussions are needed.

LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki also pointed out the need for talks because it is an issue the country hasn’t fully considered yet.

The SDF has little experience conducting counterterrorism operations overseas. Would they realistically be capable of success, given the chance?

Many pundits doubt it, as the recent hostage crisis made clear that Japan lacks the intelligence-gathering network needed in areas like the Middle East, and Japanese forces would probably have a difficult time pinpointing where hostages are being held, they say.

The Ground Self-Defense Force has a Special Forces Group to address terrorism and guerilla attacks, but it cannot be effective unless it can make a proper situational assessment of any area to which it plans to deploy, experts say.

Abe also effectively admitted there are shortcomings, noting “there is a huge fundamental issue of whether (the SDF) can really carry out (a rescue) operation” abroad.

Abe said the government will increase SDF personnel at its embassies in the Middle East, noting that military intelligence organizations tend to pass information only to their peers.

Strict limits on weapons use would also make it extremely difficult for the SDF to safely carry out rescues, they say.

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