- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009




Despite some small cracks in recent years, Article 9 of Japan’s post-war constitution has effectively walled off the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) from any combat duties for the last six decades. Strangely enough, the actions of a few dozen untrained men in speedboats, halfway around the world, could open the gates to the final renunciation of the once untouchable “pacifism clause.”

Since Jan. 9, Japan’s ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and New Komeito Party have been considering a bill that would allow the Marine Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) to assist in anti-piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden. The bill would give the MSDF the authority to escort and protect not only Japanese ships and crew members, but foreign vessels as well. Most important, it would allow them to fire on hostile ships and their crew even if they were not directly attacked.

The new anti-piracy mission however presents not only a much broader mandate for the SDF but an iron-clad rationale as well. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has opposed the Indian Ocean refueling mission because it falls outside of any U.N. mandate. DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa claims to desire a greater role for the SDF but has refused to support missions that fall outside of the U.N. framework, do not directly relate to Japan’s interests, or are undertaken to appease “American demands.” If the anti-piracy bill comes before the Diet, as it is likely to do in the near future, there are several strong reasons that even Mr. Ozawa will find it difficult to counter.

First, this mission does indeed fall within the United Nations framework. In December 2008, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to allow member states to combat piracy along the Somali coast for another year. Second, opposition lawmakers can hardly cast the anti-piracy operation as entanglement in another of the American military’s pet projects. Already many nations have begun anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden including the navies of several EU countries as well as China, and India.

Finally, the ruling party can certainly claim that Japan has a serious, direct interest in protecting the Gulf of Aden from pirates. The Suez Canal and Gulf of Aden are the primary trade routes between Asia and Europe and the United States, and Japan depends on a stable Gulf region for 82 percent of its oil imports. According to Japan’s Foreign Ministry, five to six tankers, cargo vessels and other ships with business connections to Japan pass through the waters off Somalia every day. Furthermore, several Japanese-owned ships were attacked in 2008, including the bulk carrier Stella Maris and the chemical tankers Stolt Valor and Chemstar Venus.

Even with domestic support secured, there remains the issue of international, and specifically, regional opinion. Reactions from Japan’s neighbors toward an effective Japanese military force have for decades run from anxiety to outright opposition. Yet, in the case of this most recent initiative, Asian countries have been silent. Even South Korea and China, normally steadfast and dependable critics of Japanese policy, have failed to issue any strong opinions.

Though pro-reform politicians in Japan have been slowly chipping away at, or “reinterpreting” Article 9 in recent years, it is difficult to understate the impact of the proposed anti-piracy bill. During the American occupation of Japan following World War II, the Japanese were forced to accept Article 9 into their new constitution. The article expressly renounced war as a sovereign right of the nation and the use or threat of force as a way of resolving international disputes. While Japan and the world have changed dramatically since 1947, Japan’s “pacifist clause” has not.

Restraints placed on the SDF by opposition politicians have often made Japan’s international forays seem like half-measures. Since 2001, the MSDF have conducted a refueling mission for U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan. Despite its purely non-combat assignment, the refueling mission has been extremely controversial in Japan and has been in danger of being shut down by the opposition on several occasions. In 2003, when Japan pledged 600 soldiers for the war in Iraq, they were not allowed to discharge their weapons unless fired upon and were to be sent only to “non-combat zones” to perform such tasks as postwar reconstruction and transportation. The fact that Japan’s troops had to be protected by soldiers from other countries, such as Australia and England, while carrying out these noncombatant duties was widely noticed and understandably criticized in the international media.

In the 60 years of their existence, the SDF has yet to fire its weapons or take a life in conflict, and yet it appears that by March they will be sent to Somali waters where they are likely to go in harm’s way. Even without the passage of the new bill, the government plans to dispatch ships under the existing SDF laws, which would allow them to escort and defend vessels, but only Japanese ones and only when fired upon. Even this would be a step forward for Japan by putting their forces into a combat zone where their safety is not guaranteed. If the MSDF are dispatched to the Gulf of Aden and perform adequately, it seems that a wider mandate would not be far behind.

And after the Gulf of Aden, what then? The proposed bill is an anti-piracy bill, not a Somalian piracy bill; its passage would enable the SDF to conduct missions anywhere in the world with Diet approval. There are pirates operating closer to home in the straight of Malacca and near Singapore as well. Piracy may prove to be the decisive event that allows the SDF to participate actively in international peacekeeping operations. If so, the world will benefit, and so will Japan as it moves closer to a normal state that assumes and executes responsibility for its own defense.

Evan Minsberg is a research associate with the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C. He studied international relations at Sophia University in Tokyo and graduated from Haverford College in 2006. Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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