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Thursday, July 19, 2012

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Road warriors: Ground Self-Defense Force engineers take part in a road-construction operation under a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Juba on July 5. KYODO

SDF peacekeeping faces scrutiny over scope of missions


JUBA — Since their first deployment to Cambodia in 1992, the Self-Defense Forces have taken part in U.N. peacekeeping operations on nine occasions, with the latest mission in South Sudan.

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A woman examines a motorcycle on a flooded street after heavy rains in the South Sudan capital on July 2. KYODO

Japanese troops are also currently deployed to Haiti, East Timor in Southeast Asia and the Golan Heights in the Middle East.

Peacekeeping operations have became a primary mission for the SDF, particularly after 2007, when the Defense Agency was upgraded to a ministry.

However, the expansion in the scope of their missions to as far as Africa has prompted some to question whether their contributions are in Japan's best interests.

"How do peacekeeping operations in Africa relate to Japan's national interests?" one SDF member asked. "Isn't our national interest in the Asia-Pacific (region)?"

Of the about 7,600 Japanese troops dispatched to peacekeeping missions over the two decades, most are from SDF engineering units, whose original functions have mainly been to build makeshift roads and facilities in disaster areas.

Some in the Ground Self-Defense Force, from which members of the engineering unit are now being deployed in South Sudan and Haiti, have voiced concern that their manpower has been stretched to the limit.

They are worried that the overseas deployment could make it difficult to effectively respond to a massive disaster in Japan.

Currently, the GSDF is unofficially examining the possibility of pulling out from the Haiti mission, sources said. Although the mission is classified as a U.N. peacekeeping duty, in reality it is a disaster-relief operation, as no conflict was taking place.

In South Sudan, however, GSDF members are enthusiastic about making an impact in the nation-building process.

Japanese troops began peacekeeping activities in the country in April, mainly through road construction and other work.

"It's like having paved roads only around the Imperial Palace in Japan," a GSDF member said of South Sudan's poor road conditions.

The country, which gained independence last July after more than 20 years of civil war, has about 640,000 sq. km of territory, but only about 60 km of paved roads. During the April to October rainy season, the rugged earthen roads are often flooded like rivers.

Governmental functions are still in their infant stages, a local staff member of the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo said.

The country also has a pressing need for infrastructure in the wake of the civil war, which claimed 2 million lives between 1983 and 2005 and retarded the nation's economic development.

"The country's needs are endless. Much is expected of the SDF's presence here," another member on the mission said.

But Japan's efforts in South Sudan are not limited to the SDF peacekeeping operation. The troops are also working to strengthen cooperation with the Foreign Ministry and the Japan International Cooperation Agency in order to put forward infrastructure-building projects that match Tokyo's official development assistance plans.

"Nations that supported (South Sudan's) nation-building will be remembered there well into the future," a senior GSDF official in Tokyo said.

Through its development plans, the central government plans to actively support aid projects to pave roads with asphalt in the country once its troops complete graveling them.

"All our troops are well aware that stability in South Sudan is linked to peace for Japan," a top official with the mission said in Juba, the capital.

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