The Japanese government, acting under a special antiterrorism law, decided Nov. 19 to extend Japan’s logistic support for U.S. forces for six months through next May. The decision calls for dispatching a transport ship and an escort destroyer to deliver heavy machinery from Thailand to Qatar for airfield construction in Afghanistan.

In the event of a U.S. military strike against Iraq, this additional deployment of Self-Defense Forces vessels will be construed as indirect support for U.S. operations in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. In this connection, whether to send a high-performance Aegis destroyer will again become a hot political issue.

The critical question for Japan is what kind of role it should play in the international coalition to fight the new threats of the 21st century — global terrorism and the development and/or deployment of weapons of mass destruction by the countries that Washington calls rogue states.

The administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi responded swiftly to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The following month, the administration pushed ad-hoc antiterrorism legislation through the Diet to provide support for U.S. forces.

It was the first time that SDF troops had been dispatched abroad to support a military campaign. That was an epochal move, considering the pacifist tenet of Japan’s security policy and the public’s sensitivity to SDF activities. It was also a testimony to the great impact of the 9/11 tragedy on the international security environment. Japanese nationals also died in the World Trade Center attack.

In Afghanistan, military units from 10 nations, including the U.S. and Britain, have joined forces to destroy al-Qaeda hideouts. In addition, as many as 21 nations have mounted an international campaign against terrorism.

Japan, for its part, has provided relief for Afghan refugees. The Air Self-Defense Force has transported aircraft engines and other materiel between U.S. bases here and abroad — a mission that so far has involved more than 100 flights.

The Maritime Self-Defense Force has sent two refueling ships and three destroyers to the Indian Ocean to supply oil to U.S. and British ships. The Defense Agency says refueling at sea requires “the most sophisticated skill of vessel operations.” On 140 occasions in a 12-month period to mid-November the MSDF supplied, free of charge, a total of 234,000 kiloliters of fuel worth $70 million.

SDF activities are confined to rear areas outside the combat zone. However, the refueling has made a great contribution to U.S. and British combat operations.

One question that remains is whether to dispatch an Aegis destroyer, which has advanced intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities and a powerful air defense system. At the outset of the Afghan campaign, the U.S. informally asked the Japanese government to send not only an Aegis ship but also P-3C antisubmarine patrol aircraft.

The six-month extension of SDF deployment has drawn special attention because of a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq. U.N. weapons inspectors began checking suspect sites in Iraq on Nov. 27 under a Nov. 8 Security Council resolution. The U.S. is prepared to invade Iraq if Baghdad does not fully comply.

Following the adoption of the resolution, the U.S. reportedly sounded out as many as 50 nations, including NATO members and other allies, on their possible contributions to an Iraq invasion, including military support.

Japan has been asked, officials indicate, whether it can send P-3Cs, refuel German and Canadian ships and pick up the slack in the antiterror campaign that might result from an Iraq war.

The issue of Aegis deployment hangs in the balance because of objections from some Liberal Democratic Party heavyweights as well as New Komeito. However, the government seems inclined to dispatch the destroyer when one or more of the escort ships are rotated.

Defense Agency Director General Shigeru Ishiba has told a news conference that an Aegis dispatch depends on whether it “contributes to achieving the objective of the antiterrorism law of providing rear-area support for U.S. military activities aimed at eradicating terrorism.”

It seems the government is putting off a decision on this issue until the last moment when U.S. military action against Iraq becomes reality. Maybe Tokyo wants to use the Aegis as the “trump card” for SDF support for U.S. forces. In fact, sending the ship is seen increasingly as a case of “showing the flag” — a symbolic act that will demonstrate Japan’s presence in an anti-Iraq campaign.

The 9/11 attacks awakened the world to new terrorist threats to international security. Now we know that Islamic militants maintain terror networks not only in the Middle East but also in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and the Philippines.

These regions are of vital geopolitical importance to Japan. The nation depends on the Middle East for 80 percent of the oil it consumes. Southeast Asia is a major market for Japanese trade and investment. These regions are also vital to Japan in the conduct of its foreign policy.

The shipping routes that run from the Middle East to Japan via the Strait of Malacca make up the main artery that supplies the lifeblood of the Japanese economy. The vast region that contains these sea lanes is indispensable to Japan’s prosperity.

Therefore, how Japan contributes to the international campaign against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction is a critical question. The international community expects the nation to play a more active role, yet the ruling parties, anxious to keep their coalition regime alive, seem engrossed in domestic politicking. It is this kind of political myopia that has put off an Aegis dispatch.

The government should send an Aegis destroyer as well as P-3C patrol aircraft. The current antiterrorism law is effective for two years. Japan should establish permanent antiterror legislation and demonstrate its will to deal actively with the new security threats.

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