Tuesday’s Cabinet decision to extend Japan’s logistic support for the U.S.-led antiterror campaign should not come as a surprise, given the continuing threat of terrorism in and around Afghanistan. The decision, however, should be thoroughly discussed in the Diet because it is linked, even if implicitly, to a possible role for the Self-Defense Forces in the event of a war with Iraq.

Five SDF vessels — two refueling ships and three destroyers escorting them — are now operating mainly in the Indian Ocean to supply oil and food to U.S. and British forces. Their operation, first extended last May, will continue for another six months through May next year.

Moreover, two more ships — a transport vessel and a destroyer — will be added to the flotilla to carry out a new mission: delivering heavy construction equipment, such as bulldozers, for airfield construction in Afghanistan.

The decision is based on special antiterrorism legislation enacted last year to provide logistic support for U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The law states that the latest changes in SDF deployment must be reported to the Diet ex post facto. In other words, such changes do not require Diet approval, but they do deserve a full parliamentary airing in light of a possible U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The antiterror legislation marks a major milestone in the evolution of Japan’s post-World War II security policy. A year ago, for the first time in its history, the SDF was mobilized to provide noncombat support for an overseas military operation. Yet the Japanese public has been kept largely uninformed about the activities of the naval flotilla operating in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. The Defense Agency says the SDF has so far provided American and British forces with 234,000 kiloliters of fuel.

The question that lingers is how long the U.S. military campaign against terror will continue. To be sure, al-Qaeda holdovers are still hiding in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, in Southeast Asia and other places, bomb attacks linked to this terrorist network have caused many casualties. It now appears almost certain that Osama bin Laden is still alive, if not well.

In these circumstances, the extended SDF support for the international war on terror is justified. There is a nagging feeling among the public, however, that if the U.S. goes to war in Iraq, the SDF flotilla in the Indian Ocean will become involved in one way or the other. Military support is out of the question, but logistical support for an anti-Iraq campaign cannot be ruled out.

The U.S. military is maintaining its troop level in the Indian Ocean — an indication that it is prepared for a war against Iraq. In the event of an invasion, U.S. forces will be fighting on two fronts — in Afghanistan and Iraq — at the same time. One possibility for Japan is that fuel now supplied in support of the Afghan campaign might be used for an Iraq operation as well.

The scope of SDF activity might be expanded, too, if U.S. vessels now deployed for Afghanistan participate in an Iraq invasion. It would not be surprising, in fact, if the U.S. asked Japan to pick up the slack in the Afghan operation that would result and thereby indirectly support the offensive against Iraq.

Reportedly, Washington has already informally expressed its desire for the additional dispatch of a missile-mounted Aegis destroyer as well as a P3C reconnaissance plane. The Aegis ship, which is equipped with sophisticated intelligence detection and analysis systems, can make a material contribution. The problem is said to be legal as well as political: A sharing of intelligence with U.S. forces, if it leads to the use of force, might constitute the exercise of the right to collective self-defense — a move that is prohibited by the Constitution.

Sending an Aegis destroyer, however, is not in itself a constitutional violation. Nor does it require a change in the basic deployment plan or a report to the Diet, because the ship is regarded as belonging to the same class as the ships already deployed. However, this does not obviate the need for the Diet to examine the uses of this high-performance vessel.

It is strange that the Diet appears to be taking a passive attitude on the extension decision, as it presents crucial security issues that should be thrashed out in a transparent manner. The danger is that, without an open and continuing parliamentary debate, the scope and nature of SDF deployment abroad might be expanded beyond reasonable limits.

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