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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Noda has an SDF moment

Special to The Japan Times

HONOLULU — As a governing party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has done little to stray from the security policy trajectory set by its Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) predecessor. This is surprising because, whilst in opposition, it largely opposed many of the LDPs policies and dispatches of Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Although the DPJ's security stance has been relatively robust, its decisions have carried little risk.

That is about to change. Two major challenges on the horizon that will require DPJ attention are not risk free. Yet, as a responsible member of international society and a state insistent on standing up to regional threats, the government must act. In meeting these challenges, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda needs to consider the critical role to be played by the SDF.

The most proximate challenge is North Korea's promised mid-April launch of an earth observation satellite using a long-range rocket. Although Pyongyang insists that the launch is peaceful, Japan, the United States and others believe it is actually seeking to test its long-range missile capability.

Despite regional countries, including Japan, putting diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang to stop this launch, North Korea is not backing down. Given that the rocket is expected to pass over Japan's southernmost island chain, Japan's defense minister promised to intercept the launching vehicle or its components if they pass into Japanese territory or poses any threat to Japan. Toward this end, the Air-SDF was ordered to deploy its surface-to-air Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile batteries to Japan's southwestern islands, including Okinawa, and three Maritime-SDF (MSDF) Aegis warships were ordered to the East China Sea and Sea of Japan, which carry radar and sea-to-air Standard Missile-3 interceptors. The Aegis ships are the first round of defense. Should they fail, the PAC-3 missiles are expected to intercept the target.

In 2009, prior to Pyongyang's last long-range rocket test, Tokyo ordered similar preparations. Despite the rocket crossing over Japan, Tokyo did not follow through on its promise. It cannot do this a second time.

To be sure, if Japan does act, there are consequences. If both the PAC-3 and Aegis attempts miss, Japan's missile defenses will look horribly inadequate. Worse, if the rocket or debris falls on Japan, it could cause damage or casualties. This, in turn, could provoke a Japanese response. Even if Japan successfully intercepts the rocket, this will likely provoke a belligerent North Korean response given its insistence on its right to launch a satellite. Neither option has positive consequences, but both require Japan to act.

With the trajectory expected to pass through Japanese territory and its leaders promising to act, following through on intercepting the rocket is imperative to show strong resolve on meeting North Korean provocation. Not acting would demonstrate that Japan is more bark than bite. This is not the message Japan wants to send its belligerent neighbor or an increasingly assertive China.

Understanding that North Korea would react negatively to a successful Japanese interception should not bully Noda into inaction. After all, Japan is not alone. While it is Japanese naval and air assets that will shoot down the rocket, they will be working closely with the U.S., particularly now that Japan established its Air Defense Command headquarters next to the headquarters of U.S. Forces Japan in Yokota, enabling the allies to operate side-by-side in a Bilateral Joint Operations Coordination Center. Nobody wants conflict, but can Japan afford not playing its crucial alliance role and not following through on its promise against its belligerent neighbor?

The other major challenge confronting Noda is the threat of a war with Iran. Over 80 percent of Japan's crude oil transits through the Strait of Hormuz. If Iran blocks the strait, Japan's economy would be devastated. This makes what happens in the strait relevant to Japan. While diplomacy and economic sanctions are still the primary tools to deal with Iran, it is Noda's responsibility to consider what role the SDF can play in a contingency, if necessary.

A number of options exist for the SDF to participate prior, during, and after a conflict. This includes dispatching an MSDF escort flotilla, including Aegis destroyers to track Iranian missile launches, to guard commercial vessels transiting the strait that are operated by Japanese companies or with Japanese registry; sending MSDF minesweepers to remove abandoned mines in the strait after the conflict is over; utilizing MSDF P-3C patrol planes based in Djibouti to conduct surveillance activities in the strait; dispatching extra patrol ships and P-3Cs to the Gulf of Aden to plug holes created by the departure of other countries' assets; or providing rear-area support/refueling for U.S. and allied forces.

The good news for Noda is that precedent exists for most of these. Both the escort flotilla and the use of patrol planes are similar to the MSDF's current antipiracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Similarly, minesweeping is what the MSDF did in 1991 following the Persian Gulf war. And the provision of rear-area support was similar to the MSDF's Indian Ocean mission. Finally, even though no precedent exists, reinforcing SDF assets on a current mission to alleviate pressure on U.S. assets would not be illegal.

Here again, action carries risks. This includes the stoppage of oil imports from Iran as well as possibly the targeting of Japanese commercial vessels transiting the strait. Yet, given how much Japan depends on the Middle East for oil, Japan's inaction would invite heaps of criticism, similar to its sitting out of the 1991 gulf war. Its checkbook diplomacy of that time caused a sharp downturn in U.S.-Japan relations that took years to repair. Can Noda afford this, especially given the threats North Korea and China pose for Japan?

There is no question the DPJ takes Japan's security seriously. This is evidenced by its keeping to the security policy trajectory set out by its predecessor. Yet, Noda will soon confront two security challenges that carry risks. It is his moment to demonstrate his leadership and make the hard decisions that Japan's security requires.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are solely his.

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