Farewell to pacifism

Print edition : January 16, 2004

Japan's decision to develop a ballistic missile defence system is a significant shift from its `pacifist' stance and is likely to have far-reaching implications for security in the Asia-Pacific region.

in Singapore

Members of Japan's Ground Self-Defence Force at the annual inspection parade of the force on October 5. Despite widespread public disapproval, the Japanese government sent its ground forces on a `non-combat' mission to Iraq.-CHIAKI TSUKUMO/AP

JAPAN'S decision on December 19 to install a ballistic missile defence (BMD) system is qualitatively different from the "Basic Plan" announced by the Junichiro Koizumi government in Tokyo on December 9 to send troops to Iraq on a `non-combat' mission. But the strategic calculus behind both these definitive steps, which could have far-reaching implications for the Asia Pacific region, is the same - a new assertiveness about `pacifist' Japan's global status as a political player.

In seeking to raise Tokyo's international profile, Prime Minister Koizumi has risked antagonising domestic public opinion, which overwhelmingly favours a hands-off approach vis-a-vis Iraq. The murder of two Japanese diplomats on November 29 in what was apparently an attack against the United States by the Iraqi resistance forces has further hardened the mood of the Japanese people.

The BMD issue, in contrast, has more to do with Japan's immediate neighbourhood, particularly the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). While `pacifists' and `Gaullists' still abound in Japan, the BMD issue has not been put to a stringent public opinion test in the way Koizumi's pro-U.S. stance has been. For the international community though, Japan's BMD initiative is more important than the "Basic Plan" as the former seems to be a pointer to Official Japan's increasing proclivity to assume a big-power role.

On the surface, the troops-for-Iraq move seems designed to help the U.S., Japan's long-standing `ally', at a time when the anti-American sentiment in Iraq is spiralling out of control. The BMD move, on the other hand, is intrinsically linked to Japan's own sense of security. Thus, even as Koizumi extends a helping hand to U.S. President George W. Bush in a largely symbolic gesture of solidarity, Washington will provide substantive technological support to Tokyo's BMD project.

Under the "Basic Plan", units belonging to all three wings of Japan's Self-Defence Forces (SDF, or the country's military establishment) will be despatched to Iraq in small contingents over a period of one year. The countdown for this elaborate exercise began on December 15. In all, a few hundred Japanese ground troops and modest numbers of aerial and naval equipment and personnel are likely to be deployed in Iraq by December 2004.

The rationale for preferring a `non-combat role' was spelt out under the "Basic Plan" in terms that could be interpreted to be at variance with Koizumi's political logic. The justification for sending troops was given as follows: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended... Reconstruction of Iraq is extremely important not only for the people of Iraq... but also to secure peace and stability of the entire international community including Japan. As such, Japan has decided to extend as much assistance for the reconstruction of Iraq as possible, on its (Tokyo's) own initiative". The claim about Japan's "own initiative" will, of course, be open to a different interpretation, given Bush's sojourn in Tokyo last October when he made no secret of the American desire to see Japan go beyond merely doling out financial assistance, often derisively referred to in the West as cheque-book diplomacy. Japan has announced a $5-billion aid package for Iraq, covering a period of several years.

Not unaware of the deep scepticism within Japan itself, Koizumi sought to allay the anti-war feelings of the people. At a press conference in Tokyo on December 9, he said that the proposed "despatch of SDF (units) is for humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in Iraq" under a relevant law adopted by the Diet (Parliament) on July 26. The passage of that legislation before the narrow but definitive electoral win of Koizumi's coalition last November was itself a stormy affair(Frontline, August 15).

Koizumi's latest refrain is that the SDF troops "will not engage in the use of force" in Iraq. Reaffirming the point for better emphasis, he said: "They will not participate in combative activities. They are not going to war. The United States of America, the United Kingdom and other countries are cooperating to create a stable, democratic, administration in Iraq. I believe that as a responsible member of the international community Japan must also fulfil its responsibility [for] the creation of an environment that will allow the people of Iraq to rebuild their own country with optimism."

Indicating his awareness that "the current conditions in Iraq are severe" and that the "situation cannot always be described as being safe", Koizumi said that "there are [however] areas [in Iraq] in which we must call upon the members of the SDF to be fully engaged". His political bottom line was that the government, the SDF and the Japanese people "must undertake activities that will be welcomed by the people of Iraq".

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi responds to questions at a special parliamentary session on Iraq.-ISSEI KATO/REUTERS

To say that ordinary Iraqis will `welcome' the arrival of SDF units as part of the overall U.S.-led occupation forces, notwithstanding Japan's stated `non-combat' and `pro-reconstruction' aims, is tostretch things too far. Making the announcement a few days before the U.S.' capture of the former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, Koizumi said he was steeled by the `sacrifice' that the two slain Japanese diplomats had made in the cause of "Iraqi reconstruction".

While Saddam Hussein's capture has reinforced the resolve of the Iraqi resistance forces to fight the U.S. occupation, Koizumi has not retraced his pro-Washington steps. In his December 9 remarks, he spelt out his strategic agenda on the following lines: "The basis of Japan's foreign policy must lie in the dual maintenance of both the Japan-U.S. alliance and international coordination [on Iraq]. ...Japan cannot [acting] alone secure its own peace and security. It was for such a reason that we [in the past] concluded the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, and [this is] why we must accord the Japan-U.S. alliance the importance it deserves. The United States is a unique ally for Japan... and I believe that Japan must also be a trustworthy ally for the United States."

From this explicit pro-U.S. stance, it was a short hop for the Koizumi administration to announce the BMD plan. The Japanese Foreign Ministry said on December 19 that "Japan has been conducting technological research of BMD with the United States and has [now] come to the conclusion that it is desirable to introduce the system for the purpose of enhancing peace and security of the nation and [for] strengthening the Japan-U.S. Security Alliance". The multi-layer defence system will consist of the Aegis BMD know-how and the Patriot PAC-3 equipment, both of U.S. origin. The details of the BMD installation would be decided by the end of 2004, the statement said.

Cognisant of the shock-waves that the move could send across the Asia-Pacific region, the Koizumi administration took care to emphasise that the move was entirely `defensive' and that it would have "no threatening implication for the neighbouring countries and areas and no ill-effect on the stability in the region". As and when necessary, Japan would explain its position so as to gain international understanding, it added.

As of now, two aspects of the decision on the BMD system stand out. First, the Japan-U.S. alliance accounts for not only the BMD's perceived viability but also Tokyo's decision to rush to Iraq at this stage. According to diplomats and analysts in the region, Tokyo's decision regarding Iraq has something to do with the need to stay on the right side of the U.S. and to be counted upon for "reconstruction contracts", especially in view of the Bush dictum of exclusiveness in such matters.

Referring to U.S.-Tokyo ties on the eve of the 21st century, Yoichi Funabashi and others in the Japanese strategic affairs community had spoken of an "alliance adrift". In mid-2003, Yutaka Kawashima, a former Japanese diplomat who had risen to the rank of Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, examined various scenarios before concluding that "all sorts of reservations and criticism [in Japan itself] regarding U.S. actions will be vociferously expressed". However, in his opinion, "Japan's best option seems to be to work closely with the United States".

The second aspect is that the new system could either be a forerunner of, or indeed become an integral part of, the theatre missile defence system (TMD) proposed by the U.S. in the Asia Pacific region.

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