Defense Minister Tomomi Inada arrived in South Sudan on Saturday to assess whether Self-Defense Forces personnel deployed there on a U.N. peacekeeping operation are ready to be assigned controversial new missions involving heightened risk.
Inada, who flew into the capital, Juba, in the afternoon, was visiting to get a firsthand look at the Ground Self-Defense Force’s activities in the capital and to observe the security situation in the fledgling African country.
Under controversial new security legislation that took effect in March, Tokyo is considering giving SDF personnel expanded, and possibly riskier, missions to undertake as U.N. peacekeepers.
But a recent flare-up in violence in South Sudan has stoked concerns in Japan about doing so amid the deteriorating conditions there.
On Saturday, Inada inspected the SDF camp after meeting with a senior South Sudanese defense official and Ellen Margrethe Loej, head of the U.N. mission, to discuss the security situation and outlook for peacekeeping activities there, pool reports said.
Inada told the Japanese troops there that their efforts “have contributed to the peace and stability of South Sudan,” the reports said.
Inada had initially planned to visit South Sudan in September, about a month after her appointment as defense chief, but that trip was postponed after she developed an allergic reaction to antimalarial medication she was taking.
She was scheduled to return to Japan on Sunday.
SDF activities overseas are severely restricted under the war-renouncing Constitution. However, the new legislation loosens some constraints, including the use of weapons.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe describes these changes as intended to let Japan contribute more to global peace-building efforts.
New roles the SDF can perform during peacekeeping missions include rescuing U.N. staff under attack and jointly defending U.N. peacekeepers’ camps with troops from other nations.
Those assignments could be given in November to the next batch of SDF troops slated to replace the current 350-member engineer unit deployed in South Sudan.
Following South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011, Japan began sending SDF troops there the following year as U.N. peacekeepers and to help build and service the new nation’s infrastructure.
But SDF participation in that U.N. operation has come under fire from opposition parties skeptical that the mission satisfies the five conditions for Japanese participation in peacekeeping operations, including an effective cease-fire agreement among all parties in an armed conflict.
South Sudan remains mired in violence between government and opposition forces despite a peace deal signed last year. More than 270 people died in renewed fighting in Juba in early July.
Despite the recent fighting in the capital, including an exchange of fire just outside the SDF camp there, the Japanese government maintains the situation has “relatively quieted down,” and satisfies the five conditions.
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