The debate in the current Diet session, unlike previous sessions that focused on economic problems, highlights security issues. Among the key subjects of discussion are the bills to implement the new guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation and the participation and cooperation of the Self-Defense Forces in United Nations peacekeeping missions.

The need for a hard-hitting security debate is obvious, given the continued instability in the post-Cold War world, and especially in East Asia, where tension is mounting over the missile test-firing by North Korea and over its suspected underground nuclear facility. This is an opportune time to thrash out the security issues Japan faces.

Giving further impetus to the security debate is a security policy agreement between the Liberal Democratic Party and the Liberal Party, which the partners in the coalition government established earlier last month. Their agreement calls for, among other things, an early enactment of the implementing bills for the guidelines and a more active SDF role in U.N. peace activities.

It is significant that the LDP has embraced a more positive security policy by accepting some of the views of the Liberal Party, which advocates a greater SDF role than the LDP. However, the two parties remain divided over specific questions, such as how and to what extent the SDF should cooperate with multinational forces.

The guidelines set the ground rules for SDF support of U.S. forces in the event of an armed conflict in an area surrounding Japan. In official language, such contingencies are defined as “situations in areas surrounding Japan that will have an important influence on Japan’s peace and security,” or “surrounding situations” for short.

But the government’s explanations of this definition, reiterated by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and other officials, is in fact vague and even confusing. “Surrounding situations,” they say, do not represent a “geographic concept”; but they also acknowledge in effect that such situations are indeed limited to certain geographic areas.

Consider these statements: “(Situations in) faraway areas on the other side of the globe, such as the Middle East and the Indian Ocean, are inconceivable” and “(SDF activities) will not exceed the framework of the Japan-U.S. security treaty,” which covers Japan and the Far East. The question of whether the guidelines cover Taiwan is left unanswered because any answer, positive or negative, could provoke trouble.

Another issue is whether basic plans to support U.S. military actions should be premised on Diet approval. A guidelines bill calls only for reports to the Diet, whereas opposition parties as well as the Liberal Party are calling for approval. Mr. Obuchi says parliamentary approval should not be mandatory, partly because support at a time of crisis requires quick action and partly because the rights and obligations of the Japanese are not directly involved. These arguments are tenuous, however.

Logistic support for U.S. forces in “surrounding situations” could involve the deployment of SDF units on the high seas, where SDF troops could be attacked by, and get involved in armed clashes with, hostile forces. It is only proper that basic plans for such rear support should be approved by the Diet, the supreme organ of state. Given the cardinal principle of civilian control, at least ex post facto approval is needed.

Regarding SDF participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions, the ruling parties agree that combat actions and the transportation and supply of materials to combat areas are unconstitutional and that decisions on participation in other activities will be made on a case-by-case basis. But it remains unclear what specific forms of cooperation will be possible.

On this question, the government has proved to be divided and confused. Asked by the opposition whether the transportation of weapons and ammunition to multinational forces will be possible, the government replied that such rear support is constitutional unless it is an “integral part of the use of force,” and that specific forms of support will be “carefully determined.” This “unified view” only attests to internal differences.

All in all, the Diet debate on security issues comes across as a case of beating around the bush. The new defense guidelines, based on the 1996 Japan-U.S. security declaration that redefined the role of the bilateral security arrangements in the post-Cold War era, extend the scope of defense cooperation to “areas surrounding Japan.” Yet the debate so far has not grappled with the fundamental question of how to deal with this “qualitative change” in the bilateral security arrangement.

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