The government is making a critical decision that hinges on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to convince the world that Japan is contributing more proactively to global security.
The question is whether to actually give the Self-Defense Forces permission to engage in rescue missions (kaketsuke keigo) that could require the use of lethal force, before the next rotation of Japanese relief troops heads to South Sudan for U.N. peacekeeping duties next month.
Abe’s government is already laying the ground for both approving and revoking rescue authority as the security situation in the world’s youngest nation grows more precarious.
Bloody clashes in July between the forces of President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar killed at least 300 people and forced Japan to evacuate all embassy and aid personnel from the war-torn country. What’s more, the daily Asahi Shimbun reported on Friday that Machar said he believed the peace treaty brokered by the warring sides last year was voided by the July clash.
The question for Abe, who is intent on using divisive new security laws to turn the SDF into a standing army, is whether to actually put Japanese troops in harm’s way in a country mired in civil war like Syria.
The SDF is already training for the groundbreaking rescue missions, and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada is to observe the kaketsuke keigo drills in Iwate Prefecture on Sunday.
Earlier this month, she visited South Sudan’s capital Juba for about seven hours to survey the SDF’s situation. On Tuesday, the Cabinet is likely to extend Japan’s participation in the U.N. peacekeeping mission through March. It also holds the final say on rescue missions.
The new SDF roles imposed by the laws include joint protection of base camps and kaketsuke keigo, which literally means “run to guard.”
Since the laws allow the SDF to render aid to allied foreign troops, civilian U.N. workers and nonprofit organizations, South Sudan represents the first major opportunity for Abe to exploit the security laws since they took effect in April.
The Abe administration initially planned to pull the trigger this month but postponed it as the stakes grew. A misstep could ruin Abe’s legacy as the prime minister who expanded the global security role of the SDF without amending war-renouncing Article 9. And with his Liberal Democratic Party’s decision earlier this week to extend the term of the presidency, he also stands a good chance of becoming Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
Before the security laws were enacted, SDF units engaged in peacekeeping operations could only use arms in self-defense or to guard those under their direct supervision within the framework of the Constitution, which bans Japan from using force to solve international conflicts.
The Abe administration recently had Article 9 reinterpreted to sidestep constitutional restrictions on another sensitive issue: collective self-defense.
Abe and Inada have been using semantic games in the Diet to explain away any concerns about the violence in South Sudan.
At least 21 people were killed by militia groups in an area about 100 km away from Juba on the same day Inada visited this month.
When Upper House member Motohiro Ohno of the Democratic Party asked whether the killings caused by the forces of Kiir and Machar in August constituted fighting, Inada brushed it off as a “clash,” stating that “fighting” is an action to kill people and destroy property to solve an international conflict.
But the opposition lawmaker grilled Inada on the definition of fighting, saying that if the clash can be deemed fighting, then South Sudan is in a state of civil war, which means the SDF must withdraw.
Abe helped out Inada by saying there was no fighting while acknowledging in the same breath that there was killing and destruction of property by force.
“There is no definition for fighting set by the Diet,” Abe said. “Maybe you define this clash as fighting, but the government just describes it as a clash between forces.”
Experts say the reason Abe and Inada do not want to admit the two groups are fighting is because the presence of such conflict would violate Japan’s five conditions for sending the SDF on peacekeeping operations, meaning the current mission in South Sudan would be illegal.
One of the conditions is that a cease-fire must be reached by the parties in the armed conflict. Yet Tokyo insists Machar does not constitute a party to the conflict because Machar, who allegedly fled to Ethiopia after the clash, does not represent a nation state.
Some critics says it is high time for the SDF to get out of South Sudan because it will be difficult to justify its presence under Japan’s five peacekeeping principles and the current legal framework.
But a high-ranking official at the Defense Ministry said the reason for the SDF presence is to help the South Sudanese government establish peace, provide security and establish the rule of law.
“Of course, we knew there would be some concerns about security from the beginning, but isn’t that why we sent the SDF there to help guide the nascent country into a full-fledged democracy?” the official asked.