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Is Japan ready to uphold its Indo-Pacific obligations?

Tokyo should reconsider its international role in wake of Afghanistan crisis

| Japan
A Japan Air Self-Defense Force C-2 transport plane prepares to take off on a flight to Afghanistan from Iruma Air Base in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, on Aug. 23. Tokyo failed to meet its objective of pulling out over 500 Afghans.   © Kyodo

Yukari Ota is a Ph.D. researcher at Cambridge University and a former U.N. official who specialized in peace-building. She served in several conflict-affected countries, including Afghanistan (2004-2010).

Set to play more of an essential role in global politics than ever before, last month's in-person Quad summit in Washington reaffirmed Japan's vital importance as the cornerstone of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific. But is Japan ready?

Tokyo's response to the crisis in Afghanistan was an important test of whether Japan will be able to effectively balance its defense and diplomatic power to protect and promote such common values.

When Western allies, including Japan, came together to evacuate not only their nationals but vulnerable Afghans following the fall of Kabul, their efforts eventually got more than 124,000 people out of the country.

But for reasons that remain opaque, Japan, after bringing all its diplomats home, left other Japanese nationals, Afghan staffers and their family members behind in Afghanistan.

As other allies rushed to evacuate thousands of people considered vulnerable, it took more than eight days after the fall of Kabul for Tokyo to authorize an evacuation mission to remove Japanese nationals and affiliated Afghans. Why so slow?

Political decision-making was not the only constraint, with some legal restrictions limiting the size of the operation. To send Japan Self-Defense Forces to Kabul, Tokyo had to invoke the Self-Defense Forces Law, which authorizes the SDF to rescue Japanese citizens but only to work in areas where the safety of SDF personnel can be assured.

Such legal constraints prevented SDF personnel from leaving the Kabul airport to aid the movement of the evacuees. When a suicide bombing shut down access to the airport itself, there was little the SDF could do to help the evacuees reach safety. Japanese diplomats had to fill the gap.

For the few diplomats who accompanied the SDF mission, the abrupt evacuation of Japan's embassy meant that its diplomatic resources were severely limited. In the end, the expedition succeeded in evacuating only one Japanese national and a group of Afghans requested by the U.S. who were not affiliated with the Japanese. Tokyo failed to meet its objective of pulling out over 500 Afghans.

Slow decision-making also reflects Japan's apparent lack of public concern for vulnerable Afghans. Public statements that Afghan partners should be resettled in third countries -- unlike what its allies did -- likewise suggest a values divide separating Japan from its peers. Japan's adherence to shared values may make it a key ally, but it still lags behind its peers when it comes to assisting vulnerable people.

The contradiction of Japan being, on the one hand, closely involved in the peace process that presaged the Taliban taking control, but then immediately withdrawing its embassy staff after Kabul had fallen, was also problematic. Tokyo has, after all, been central to transformations in Afghanistan for two decades, championing a nonmilitary approach to forging peace that helped to further its case for a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

In my six years with the United Nations in Afghanistan, I worked with inspiring Japanese diplomats who spoke local languages and did much to advance Japan's nonmilitary approach to peace-building. Japan's 20-year effort was well-received by allies and Afghans alike. Even the Taliban said they wanted Japan to stay and help.

A construction site for the Bamiyan-Yakawlang road, supported by the Japanese government and the World Bank, in June 2011. Japan's 20-year effort was well-received by Afghans.   © Getty Images

Why, in this time of crisis, did Japan not mobilize its diplomatic power to achieve its goals? And was relying on the SDF the best option in this case?

An alternative diplomatic approach might have focused on obtaining allies' help in evacuating Japanese citizens and Afghan partners -- countries that had the capacity and legal flexibility to act as circumstances required.

While operating in an insecure area during a fast-moving international crisis in which the lives of Japanese citizens and Afghan partners were at stake, the use of diplomatic influence with its allies might have yielded an effective response.

Japan's highly capable diplomats had the local knowledge and relationships to make the necessary arrangements, but only if their political masters had allowed them to stay. Japan should learn from this experience.

The country may have a well-equipped SDF with a budget of $49.1 billion, ranking ninth in global military expenditures, but its legal limitations are not going to change anytime soon. To fill the gap, Tokyo must learn how to balance its diplomatic power with its defense capabilities in times of crisis.

Finally, global Japan must also develop humanitarian sensitivity and find the social resources to offer support to the world's most vulnerable people. Given Japan's long-standing resistance to immigration, which cannot change overnight, it must find alternative ways to fulfill its moral obligations.

New Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, himself a former foreign minister, needs to start thinking about how he can offer the public fresh ideas and more inspiring leadership in the lead-up to a general election that will be held on Oct. 31.

Kishida's new cabinet should seize the opportunity to provide the global policy leadership that its place at the center of the Western alliance offers it, and consider how it can rise to the sort of challenges revealed by the fall of Kabul.

The crisis in Afghanistan will not have been wasted if it inspires the Japanese people and their leaders to think seriously about what their new global role requires of them.

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