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Whether or not to send an Aegis destroyer to the Indian Ocean has been a touchy question ever since Japan indirectly joined in the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan about a year ago. The question was settled, officially at least, earlier this week when the government decided, after hemming and hawing, to dispatch the high-tech warship around the middle of this month.

The decision marks a step forward in Japan’s expanding logistic support of U.S.-led antiterrorism operations. Up till now, however, an Aegis dispatch had been shelved on grounds that Japan might get involved in a collective military operation prohibited by the Constitution.

The destroyer’s air-defense system, whose radar can track objects up to several hundred kilometers away, is capable of simultaneously striking more than 10 targets. Data collected by the vessel would be shared with U.S. forces. If such data is used as the basis for a U.S. attack, the argument goes, it could both constitute an exercise of the right to collective self-defense and result in the destroyer becoming a combat target.

Defense Agency Director General Shigeru Ishiba, speaking at a Diet committee meeting on Thursday, tried to dispel these concerns. “It is unlikely,” he said, “that the destroyer will provide information such as when and where to shoot.” Still, doubt lingers over whether the ship might not get drawn into a direct military engagement. After all, it is up to the U.S. military to decide how to use data supplied by the Aegis.

Japan has three ordinary destroyers now deployed in the Indian Ocean to protect two refueling ships. Mr. Ishiba, noting that these destroyers are already sharing intelligence with U.S. forces, said the difference between their deployment and that of the Aegis ship is only “quantitative, not qualitative.” Given its advanced capabilities, however, its qualitative aspects cannot be ignored.

The government gives three reasons for the dispatch of an Aegis destroyer. First, one of the three destroyers now deployed will soon be returning home in accordance with the rotation schedule. Second, the Aegis destroyer has advanced radar and intelligence-analysis capabilities. And three, with features such as highly efficient air conditioning, it provides a better living environment for the crew.

One should read between the lines, however. The main reason the high-performance destroyer is being sent is the possibility of a U.S. war in Iraq. The dilemma for the government is that it cannot explicitly say this because there is as yet no conclusive evidence linking al-Qaeda and Iraq. Under the circumstances, the existing antiterrorism law does not provide the legal basis for supporting an anti-Iraq operation.

Passing a new law for this purpose, however, is not a realistic option because U.S. military action against Iraq could be over by the time such legislation is enacted. The official thinking, therefore, seems to be that an Aegis destroyer should be dispatched before it it is too late, and that its timely dispatch can pick up some of the slack in the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign and thereby provide indirect support for an anti-Iraq operation.

The Aegis decision sends a clear message to Washington, which has been asking Tokyo unofficially to send the destroyer. As such, it was timed with an eye to the forthcoming visit here by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and subsequent Japan-U.S. ministerial security talks.

For many Japanese, however, the deployment of the state-of-the-art destroyer even before the start of an Iraq war seems rather odd. The international community is now watching to see how U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq will develop. There is still a need to make every diplomatic effort to avoid war. Many also find it hard to understand why the dispatch of such an advanced warship requires neither a change to the basic deployment plan nor a report to the Diet.

As expected, the opposition parties have fired a broadside at the Aegis deployment. Even some leading members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have expressed their opposition or reservations. New Komeito, a coalition partner, while officially objecting on grounds of “lack of national consensus,” is looking the other way.

It is likely that the United States will request the dispatch of a P-3C antisubmarine patrol plane as well. It is time to discuss the overseas deployment of the Self-Defense Forces from every conceivable angle, including the issue of exercising the right to collective self-defense. The Japan-U.S. alliance is multisided and needs to be maintained from a broad perspective. Military utility, however important, is only one aspect of that relationship.

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