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Enhanced Role of Japanese SDF in UN Peacekeeping Operations

Colonel Adarsha Verma is a Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 18, 2016

    On 8 October 2016, the Japanese Defence Minister Tomomi Inada visited South Sudan to assess the prevailing security situation for the deployment of Self Defence Forces (SDF) which would be assigned an enhanced role of protecting UN personnel, civilians and other peacekeepers. This enhanced role will be a major change from the current SDF role in peacekeeping operations, which is based on provisions of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution that permit the SDF to use their weapons only to protect themselves once they are fired upon.

    The Constitution of Japan declares in Article 9 that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes"; that "in order to accomplish [this] aim, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained"; and that "the right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized." This article was interpreted by the Japanese political hierarchy as prohibiting the overseas despatch of the SDF for whatever purpose or for whatever activity because Japan cannot be involved directly in any armed conflict. Such views, harboured for decades since World War II, led to the formation of an inward-looking, "don't want to be involved" mentality.1

    Consequently, during the Gulf War of 1990, though Japan made a substantial financial contribution of USD 13 billion, it had to face harsh international criticism for not contributing its human resources. The Japanese Government thereafter took the initiative to create a legal framework for enabling Japan to participate in the international community's peace-keeping efforts. These efforts resulted in the enactment of the Act on Cooperation with United Nations Peacekeeping Operations and Other Operations (the International Peace Cooperation Act) in June 1992 (Kokusai Heiwa Kyoryokuho in Japanese). According to this Act, before a Japanese contingent is despatched for a UN mission, five conditions must be satisfied. These are:

    1. “Agreement on a cease-fire shall have been reached among the parties to armed conflicts.
    2. “Consent for undertaking of UN Peacekeeping Operations as well as Japan’s participation in such operations shall have been obtained from the host countries as well as the parties to armed conflicts.
    3. “The operations shall strictly maintain impartiality, not favoring any of the parties to armed conflicts.
    4. “Should any of the requirements in the above-mentioned principles ceases to be satisfied, the Government of Japan may withdraw Self-Defense Forces (SDF) contingent.
    5. “The use weapons shall be limited to the minimum necessary to protect the lives of personnel, etc.”2

    Since the enactment of the International Peace Cooperation Act, Japan has made contributions for promoting international peace in more than 13 UN peacekeeping operations. The latest in this regard is the January 2012 despatch of a Horizontal Military Engineering Company (HMEC) for reconstruction and engineering tasks to Juba, South Sudan.

    Meanwhile, Japan’s security environment had begun to deteriorate, with rising tensions between Japan and North Korea, growing antipathy between Japan and China, and increasing uncertainty about US commitments to Japanese security in the event of a conflict. These security concerns along with expectations of the international community on Japan to play a more proactive role in ensuring international peace and stability have led the Abe administration to enact a new security legislation3 for the purpose of reinterpreting the Constitution. This new legislation, amongst other clauses, empowers the SDF to use military force to protect civilians, aid workers and peacekeepers of other nations. Now, with the turnover of the currently deployed engineer company in South Sudan due on 31 October 2016, Japan is keen to deploy fresh troops with an enhanced role based on the new security legislation. As this planned deployment is likely to be contested by the Japanese Opposition in the Diet (Parliament) by citing the spiralling violence and fragile peace in South Sudan, the visit of the Defence Minister was important to gain a first-hand knowledge of the conditions obtaining in South Sudan and the degree of risk that the SDF in their new role would be exposed to.

    Currently, the SDF Engineering Company in Juba operates only in specified areas close to the capital city. Restrictions on their employment and the limitation on their operations to comparatively risk-free areas have given rise to a reputation among other peacekeepers of the SDF being risk averse. An enhanced role of the SDF will negate this adverse image and demonstrate Japan’s acceptance of greater global responsibility to maintain international norms, values and institutions, commensurate with its national capabilities and international standing.

    Secondly, an enhanced engagement in peacekeeping operations, resulting from the additional SDF roles, will also assure the African nations of greater Japanese involvement and willingness to a play a proactive role in maintaining peace in the continent. Japan hopes that this will translate into African support for its proposed reform of the UN and its inclusion as a Permanent Member in a reformed United Nations Security Council.

    Thirdly, enhanced engagement will also facilitate access to the oil reserves of South Sudan in particular and Africa in general as Japan looks to diversify its energy sources. The proposed 2000 km gas pipeline from South Sudan and Uganda to Lamu (Kenyan port on the Indian Ocean) spearheaded by Toyota Tsusho, a Japanese multinational company, is an example in this regard. Such a greater involvement by Japan also appear to be motivated by a desire to negate the Chinese influence in South Sudan where currently China has a major stake in oil fields.

    Fourthly, the SDF has no combat experience and has generally been confined to undertaking disaster relief tasks since its inception. An enhanced role under the UN banner may provide limited experience of conflict situations to the SDF.

    Against this backdrop, the indication by Defence Minister Tomomi Inada post her visit to South Sudan in October 2016 that security conditions are conducive for an increase in SDF roles points to a pragmatic outlook and mature understanding of Japan’s role in international issues.

    Since the promulgation of the Constitution on 3 May 1947, Japan has been compelled by international economic, political and security circumstances to gradually expand the role of the SDF. Current efforts by the Abe Government to assign an enhanced role to the SDF in South Sudan is a step towards the realisation of responsibilities and acceptance of a more proactive role in international affairs. This will pave the way for the SDF to shoulder greater responsibilities in peace keeping activities the world over in line with PM Shinzo Abe’s mantra of ‘Japan’s Proactive Contribution to Peace’.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.