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Clustering with the Europeans

Japan was among the 111 countries that took part in an international conference held in Dublin, Ireland, in May and unanimously adopted a treaty that, in principle, prohibits all signatories from using, developing, producing, stockpiling, retaining or transferring cluster munitions.

That means that the Self-Defense Forces will sooner or later have to discard an estimated ¥27.5 billion worth of such weapons in their possession. While it is natural for peace activists to clamor for abolition of cluster munitions, Japan’s government has the responsibility of carefully assessing the extent to which abolition affects national security.

The government has repeatedly asserted that a balance must be maintained between humanitarian problems arising from such weapons and their effectiveness in defending the country. The bottom line is that national security should take precedence over potential hazards to humans. That’s why Japan joined Poland and Romania at a meeting in Oslo in February 2007 in casting negative votes on a declaration to ban cluster bombs, which was adopted with the support of 46 other participants.

The principal reason why Japan opposed that declaration lay in the peculiar circumstances prevailing in East Asia where, even after the Cold War, tensions remain on the Korean Peninsula and across the Taiwan Strait. An unlucky incident could lead to major armed conflict inviting intervention by the United States.

It has been assumed that these circumstances compel Japan to prepare for any attack on U.S. military bases and its southwestern islands, or for an influx of armed refugees from North Korea.

Moreover, some doubts have been cast over the effectiveness of any treaty banning cluster weapons without the participation of the U.S., Israel and other countries that have used them in actual combat, or without the representation of any East Asian country other than Japan.

Cluster munitions that can be fired either from the air or from the ground are an effective means of suppressing invaders. Since 1995, the Ground Self-Defense Force has been equipped with the Multiple-Launch Rocket System incorporating cluster bombs.

With the introduction of modern weaponry, including missile defense systems, and the disappearance of the Soviet threat, the role anticipated for cluster munitions may have diminished, although their tactical importance remains unchanged. If they are to be abolished altogether, the potential risks must be taken into account.

So, what moved the Japanese government to change its policy and sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Dublin? Even before the meeting opened, it was a foregone conclusion that the treaty would be approved by a majority of participating nations. Japan thought it wise to join the meeting given its bitter past experience of not taking an active part in talks at a similar conference to ban anti-personnel mines.

As the government was preparing itself for the Dublin meeting, subtle differences in viewpoints developed between the Defense Ministry, which saw the retention of cluster bombs as important, and the Foreign Ministry, which sought, above all else, to maintain smooth relations between Japan and United States. Both ministries did agree that a total ban on cluster bombs would be unacceptable.

According to sources close to the government, the Japanese delegates were instructed to work closely with Britain, France and Germany, whose positions were thought to be close to Tokyo’s. Japan was caught off guard when the three European nations decided to support the treaty.

France and Germany, for example, had already developed cluster munitions with self-destructive mechanisms that drastically reduced the danger of unexploded bombs killing or maiming humans later, and had succeeded in excluding such weapons from the ban during talks over treaty contents. Indeed, that exclusion would help the two countries sell their cluster munitions to other countries after the treaty was adopted.

Even more shocking to Japan was Britain’s about-face. Although Britain has been using cluster bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan to the extent that a total ban on such weapons would impact its military strategies, London nevertheless did not see much need to maintain them for its own security since all of its neighbors, except Ireland, are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. To avoid being isolated in Europe, Britain chose to sign the treaty.

Having closely watched these moves by Britain, France and Germany, Japan decided to direct its efforts in two principal areas:

Exclude from the ban those cluster munitions that have self-destructive mechanisms and are among the cluster weapons now owned by the Self-Defense Forces. This proposal failed to win support from other participating nations.

Make it legal under the treaty to carry out joint military operations with U.S. forces, which possess cluster munitions. With the support of NATO member countries, this request was granted.

Back in Tokyo, meanwhile, the difference in positions between the Defense and Foreign ministries widened. With Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura insisting that Japan must avoid isolation at any cost, the Foreign Ministry pushed to pacify the Defense Ministry and the government rushed to sign the treaty.

Two of Japan’s leading newspapers, the Asahi and the Mainichi, praised Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda for making a resolute decision to support and sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The fact was, though, that Japan merely followed in the footsteps of Britain, France and Germany.

Does the Defense Ministry alone have to carry out the task of shouldering the cost for abolishing the existing inventory of cluster weapons? A sense of lethargy appears to be spreading among defense officials since the decision to abolish cluster munitions was taken without much discussion of the impact on national security.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the July issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic topics.