Fulfilling Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pledge to make Japan a “proactive contributor to peace” may not be so easy as the Self-Defense Forces end their participation in the peacekeeping operation in South Sudan and the government looks for other missions to join.

The U.N. mission in South Sudan was the first test case for giving the SDF a bigger role in international peace-building efforts based on Abe’s controversial security laws that loosened the constraints of the pacifist Constitution.

But the SDF unit in South Sudan is leaving, with the first elements departing Monday evening Japan time without having carried out any of the potential security roles it was handed four months ago, including rescue missions for U.N. staff or others under attack.

The Abe government has denied that the unstable security situation in South Sudan, where fighting continues between government and opposition forces, was the reason for the pullout, while highlighting the results delivered through five years of SDF work that centered on road repair and other construction in the capital, Juba.

“The deployment of the SDF civil engineering personnel has become the longest ever (of Japan’s U.N. missions). During that time, great contributions have been made to South Sudan’s nation-building,” Abe told reporters March 10 as he announced that all of the troops would be withdrawn by the end of May.

There has been speculation that the government decided to pull the troops out because the political risk was too great — public outcry would be huge if Japanese troops became embroiled in military action overseas for the first time since World War II.

Such a consequence was not unrealistic because the divisive security laws, among other controversial changes, now allow SDF personnel for the first time to use weapons for purposes other than self-defense during U.N. missions.

While the SDF’s international contributions have gradually expanded since the 1990s, not a single bullet has been fired, a fact many Japanese see as symbolic of their nation’s postwar pacifism.

Article 9 of the Constitution states that the Japanese people “forever renounce war” and the “use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

“One death (during the South Sudan mission) would have had an impact large enough to overthrow the government. It was probably like carrying a time bomb waiting to go off,” said Akira Kato, a professor of international politics at J. F. Oberlin University in Machida, western Tokyo.

With no other SDF units taking part in active U.N. peacekeeping operations, a Defense Ministry spokesman said the government will continue studying whether there are other “suitable” missions where they can be sent.

However, finding the next deployment destination while avoiding controversy is likely to be a challenging task.

An important element in this equation is Japan’s so-called Five Principles, or five legal requirements governing its participation in U.N. peacekeeping, to guarantee that SDF actions do not contravene Article 9.

One of these requirements states that a cease-fire agreement must be in place among the warring parties in a country where the SDF deploys.

Takaki Imai, a member of a Japanese nongovernmental organization who has been in South Sudan to deliver emergency relief to civilians displaced by its raging civil war, said few U.N. peacekeeping operations are likely to satisfy the Five Principles, which were introduced when SDF participation in U.N. missions began in 1992.

“The nature of peacekeeping operations has changed over time … the operations were originally deployed after a peace agreement was reached and with the aim of maintaining the situation, but nowadays more peacekeeping operations have been established in countries where conflicts have yet to be resolved,” said Imai, who is a member of the Japan International Volunteer Center.

In the case of South Sudan, officials in the Abe administration were repeatedly questioned in the Diet on whether the fighting, which last July left more than 270 people dead, amounted to a “combat” situation that required termination of the SDF mission in light of the Five Principles.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada has adamantly refused to use the term “combat” to avoid contradicting the government’s position that the situation in South Sudan meets the Five Principles. But entries from the SDF unit’s daily activity logs, which resurfaced in February, described the fighting as “combat.”

“Contradictions appear if the government tries to send troops to U.N. missions that in reality do not meet the Five Principles,” Imai said, adding that Japan should explore other forms of contribution, such as sending civilian experts to international organizations rather than trying to send SDF troops on controversial missions.

Kato of Oberlin University said the government may no longer be eager to get involved in U.N. missions, not just because it is politically risky but also because Japan’s key ally, the United States, is trumpeting an “America First” policy that focuses on its own interests and security rather than multilateralism.

The history of the expansion of SDF activities abroad has been closely linked to the demands of the U.S. amid changes in the security environment, such as the end of the Cold War.

For example, Japan’s first forays into U.N. peacekeeping missions were part of efforts to move beyond “checkbook diplomacy” — a term the United States and other countries used to criticize Japan for supplying money instead of troops to back the U.S.-led coalition during the 1991 Gulf War.

“To Japan, joining internationally cooperative actions was a way of contributing to the United States and creating a stronger alliance,” Kato said, noting that in this way Tokyo sought further reassurances of the U.S. commitment to defend Japan.

“But it is becoming uncertain whether the United States, which is likely to pursue ‘America First’ also in military issues, will devote efforts to the defense of Japan no matter how much Japan sends SDF troops to U.N. missions to show loyalty to the United States.”

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