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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Public out of the loop on SDF dispatch

Bill's swift passage signals shift in attitude toward overseas role


Staff writer

The ramming of the beefed-up antipiracy bill Friday through the Diet left the impression that deploying the Self-Defense Forces overseas is no longer a cause for public debate.

News photo
Still fighting: The Upper House votes down an antipiracy bill Friday before it was enacted by the Lower House in an override vote later in the day. KYODO PHOTO

Some experts fear the trend could carry over to other crucial issues, including another pending bill for inspecting North Korean vessels at sea.

"The dispatch of the SDF is being accepted too easily, in the name of international cooperation," said Motofumi Asai, president of the Hiroshima Peace Institute, a research center at Hiroshima City University.

The government has said the new law will allow Japan to carry out its international duty by protecting some 2,000 Japan-related and other vessels that pass through the pirate-infested seas off Somalia each year, a mission two Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers and related aircraft are already engaged in.

But while acknowledging Japan's obligation to fight piracy, Asai said the "core issue with sending the SDF overseas didn't receive much attention in the Diet." Instead, the parties prioritized the looming Lower House election, he said.

Past plans to dispatch SDF elements abroad used to generate heated Diet deliberations, routinely triggering thorny debates on the war-renouncing Constitution.

For example, in 1992 deliberations on the peacekeeping operation law, which allows the SDF to participate in international peacekeeping operations, the opposition parties stalled the inevitable ruling party passage of contentious bills by performing their "gyuho" (ox walk) tactic, in which lawmakers dragged their feet on the way to the ballot box during plenary session votes.

The tactic was bizarre in retrospect, but other key events, including the deployment of Air Self-Defense Force units to Cambodia in 1997 and the dispatch of the Ground Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq in 2004, also created serious clashes in the Diet between the ruling and opposition camps.

In contrast, Friday's enactment of the revised antipiracy law was a walk in the park.

Although the Democratic Party of Japan was the first to oppose the bill, its demand that Diet approval precede any MSDF dispatch, presumably even the current mission, went unheeded. Although some argued that use of force overseas would violate the Constitution, the bill was rammed through the Diet as expected by the ruling coalition.

Tadasu Kumagai, a military analyst and former ASDF officer, welcomed the new antipiracy law as a way to allow Japan's forces to do their job.

The current MSDF flotilla had safely escorted Japanese or Japan-related vessels on 28 trips across the Gulf of Aden as of Thursday, but there were several cases in which the destroyers dispatched helicopters or used searchlights and bullhorns to scare off suspected pirate boats.

Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada previously said the current deployment, based on the police-action provision, would be "an interim measure" and called for quickly enacting the new law to provide the SDF more autonomy to act.

"At last, with this law, those forces off Somalia can concentrate on what they were sent there to do," Kumagai said.

With the legislation enacted, the next debate will turn to the bill to authorize either the MSDF or Japan Coast Guard to inspect North Korean vessels that may be involved in arms-related shipments. That high seas checks would be in line with a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted earlier this month after the North's second nuclear test.

"Without quickly passing the ship-check bill, Japan won't be able to conduct inspections," analyst Kumagai said, adding the quick enactments must continue.

Asai of Hiroshima City University disagreed. In urging the need for caution, he expressed concern about a recent proposal by the defense policy panel of the Liberal Democratic Party to give Japan the capacity to strike enemy missile sites. Unlike hunting pirates, such acts — and even those carried out under the ship-check bill — can lead to instant war, he said.

"The ship-check bill should not be considered as being in the same category as the antipiracy law," Asai said, warning Japan should realize it is already walking a tightrope.



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