National / Politics | FOCUS

With hazy plan for SDF dispatch to Mideast, is Japan pursuing contradictory goals?

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

It was an unusual meeting starting at around 7:30 a.m. at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s headquarters in Tokyo on Oct. 23, hastily organized so government officials could get lawmakers up to speed.

In the week before, the government had abruptly announced plans to dispatch Self-Defense Forces elements to the sea off Oman for a possibly historic mission amid highly strained military tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.

However, the government officials didn’t give clear-cut answers to most of the questions posed by LDP members, saying everything is still “under consideration,” according to several lawmakers who attended the meeting.

“Some (LDP) members asked if the government will send the SDF as a diplomatic means just to save the face of the United States,” said Kenji Harada, who heads the LDP’s defense policy panel. “But we didn’t get clear answers.”

LDP lawmakers and security experts say Tokyo appears to be pursuing two potentially contradictory diplomatic goals at the same time: showing commitment to the military alliance with the U.S. while avoiding damaging ties with Middle Eastern countries that harbor anti-U.S. sentiment, most notably Iran.

Therefore, the government is still keeping key details of the military mission secret, including whether SDF personnel will actually be sent to the Strait of Hormuz, located just south of Iran, as initially requested by Washington, the LDP members said.

“It’s obvious to everyone that the Japanese government is trying to walk a fine line,” said Yasuhide Nakayama, who heads the LDP’s diplomacy panel. Nakayama believes Japan should “show the flag” to strengthen its military alliance with the U.S.

“This could be a fateful crossroads for Japan’s diplomacy and policies regarding the SDF,” he said. “So the government should be well-prepared.”

The government’s announcement of the plan drew immediate criticism from opposition lawmakers, and even from some influential members of the ruling LDP.

Critics point out that the legal basis the government plans to invoke is so vague and wide-ranging that it could undermine various strict legal restrictions on the SDF’s overseas operations under the pacifist Constitution.

The official plan at present is to dispatch warships and patrol airplanes on an “investigation and research” mission based on the Act for Establishment of the Ministry of Defense.

But since “investigation and research” is not defined in the law, the Defense Ministry is arguing that it can theoretically send the SDF to almost anywhere in the world if the purpose is only to gather information and not engage in combat.

And once the SDF is dispatched to the Middle East, the mission may be switched to something different that will allow military elements to engage in combat operations, according to a key Defense Ministry bureaucrat.

During a Lower House session on Oct. 23, Akihiro Tsuchimichi, the head of the Defense Ministry’s defense policy bureau, said the ministry may later invoke the maritime police action provision of the Self-Defense Forces Law if the Middle East security situation deteriorates.

The provision would allow the SDF to use weapons to defend Japan-related tankers, meaning warships and patrol airplanes initially sent on an “investigation and research mission” could later engage in combat operations in a military hot zone thousands of kilometers from Japan.

If such an application of the law were to be allowed, the government would be able to send an SDF unit anywhere in the world — even in a dangerous war zone or the territorial sea of another country — with only the approval of the defense minister and without the involvement of the Diet, argued Hiranao Honda of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force.

“The SDF would be able to do anything under the name of ‘research and investigation’ operations. Is this really acceptable?” Honda asked during a session of the Lower House Security Committee on Oct. 24.

Maritime Self-Defense Force elements are expected to be dispatched to the Middle East on an 'investigation and research' mission. | BLOOMBERG
Maritime Self-Defense Force elements are expected to be dispatched to the Middle East on an ‘investigation and research’ mission. | BLOOMBERG

Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, a veteran LDP lawmaker, urged the need for legislation stipulating the missions the SDF can engage in under such conditions.

“We need a new legal basis. Otherwise, ‘investigation and research mission’ can serve” like a magic wand with which “you can create anything you want,” Ishiba said during the Oct. 23 meeting at LDP headquarters.

Ishiba later told The Japan Times that he does not intend to criticize the government because there is no other legal alternative at present.

Still, the government needs ” a clear legal basis” if it wants to win support from a majority of Japanese when sending the SDF on such a dangerous mission, Ishiba said.

This is not the first time the government has been criticized for taking advantage of the vague “research and investigation” mission in the Defense Ministry establishment law.

In 2001, soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Japan was asked to defend the carrier USS Kitty Hawk and other U.S. naval ships against possible terrorist attacks when they were departing from the Yokosuka naval base in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Finding few laws the mission could be based on, the Maritime Self-Defense Force finally dispatched two destroyers under the name of “investigation and research,” drawing criticism that the government is expanding the interpretation of the law that could undermine legal restrictions under the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

Retired Vice Adm. Yoji Koda, a former commander of the main MSDF fleet and who was the MSDF defense policy chief at that time, said there was no other law that could be applied for such a mission. It wouldn’t be until 2015 that new security laws were enacted allowing the SDF to defend the U.S. military even in peacetime.

When drafting the 2015 laws, however, LDP lawmakers were still reluctant to include a specific provision allowing the SDF to engage in information-gathering activities in peacetime far from Japan, Koda said.

That’s why the government still needs to resort to the ambiguous “research and investigation” provision of the Act for Establishment of the Ministry of Defense, Koda explained.

“For a military or a state government to make a decision, what is critically important is information-gathering,” he said, adding that the 2015 law should have had the provision to allow such a mission.

Various equipment on MSDF warships and patrol airplanes, including radar and electric wave analyzing machines, will be helpful to track suspicious ships in the region, he said.

Praising the government decision to launch the Middle East mission, Koda said it will achieve three key policy goals simultaneously: showing Japan’s firm commitment to the military alliance with the U.S.; avoiding provocations against Iran by carefully selecting likely operational areas; and increasing Japan’s political presence in the Middle East.

Still, the planned dispatch will probably be a great risk for the SDF and Japan, which for years have maintained good relations with many Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and even Israel.

Although Japan dispatched minesweepers to the Persian Gulf after the end of the Gulf War in 1991 and sent units to the sea off Somalia in 2009 to patrol against pirates, they have not engaged in combat.

However, a military conflict appears to be a very really possibility this time. In June, a tanker operated by a Japanese transport firm was attacked by a still-unidentified armed group near the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. and Iran have blamed each other for staging the assault, further raising military tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.

U.S. President Donald Trump has argued Japan should defend its own tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, through which around 80 percent of all the oil exports bound for Japan are transported.

Washington thus has called on Japan to join a U.S.-led naval coalition to patrol around the strait to defend against the Iranian threat.

Torn between the U.S. and Iran, Japan has announced that the SDF would not participate in the U.S.-led coalition and instead would launch “Japan’s own independent operation.”

The likely operational areas are the Gulf of Oman, the northern Arabian Sea and the eastern part of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, Japanese officials said.

“The Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf are important sea areas to ensure the safety of Japanese ships. Did you exclude them intentionally out of consideration for Iran and other countries in the surrounding areas?” asked Shigeki Sato of Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, during a Lower House Security Committee session last week.

In response, Defense Minister Taro Kono only gave a vague answer, saying the government will study whether the SDF should be dispatched to the Strait of Hormuz.

“We would not exclude any particular areas” in such a study, Kono said.

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