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Politics

Japan's defense forces reach turning point, with new risks ahead

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Japanese forces have played a role in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Now operating under a broader remit, Japan's Self-Defense Forces could face dangers and difficult judgment calls, such as when to use deadly force, like never before.

     With the public still skeptical toward this change in defense policy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has no plans to exercise the SDF's new mandate before July parliamentary elections.

    Even before the Abe government's defense legislation took effect Tuesday, Japan and the U.S. had been pursuing closer defense coordination.

     The American side has become less stingy with information, Abe told aides recently. When North Korea launched a missile in February, Japanese forces had a "perfect grasp" of the location of U.S. warships equipped with the Aegis missile-defense system during the allies' response, the prime minister said.

     Now, by virtue of Japan's new defense policy stance, Japanese forces could retaliate alongside the American military in the event of an attack on the U.S. Even in day-to-day operations, the SDF can provide protection to U.S. warships engaged in Japan's defense.

     The U.S. and Japan updated their defense cooperation guidelines last April, partly in response to China's rising military power. The allies' efforts to integrate operations will only accelerate now that the legislative framework is in effect.

     Protecting Japanese abroad and supporting international security efforts could provide the first test of the SDF's broader mandate.

     The SDF now has the authority to rescue or safeguard fellow nationals abroad, as long as the country where they are in danger approves. Last month, SDF members conducted a mock rescue at a Thai navy airfield. Gun-toting service members practiced ferrying Japanese schoolchildren out of harm's way using an armed personnel carrier.   

     "There's no knowing when Japanese may become caught up in hostage incidents overseas," a senior defense ministry official said.

     Officials are also considering another rescue scenario -- protecting foreign troops or civilians during peacekeeping missions. This sort of rapid-response deployment had been debated in Japan for years. Back in 2002, Japanese nationals fleeing an outbreak of violence in East Timor took shelter at the camp of SDF personnel supporting a United Nations peacekeeping mission there. But prior to the new national security legislation, Japanese forces had essentially been unable to leave their encampments to rescue fellow peacekeepers or civilians in danger.

     By bringing Japanese forces closer to the fighting, the SDF's broader mandate could put them in harm's way themselves. Japanese troops are now able to point their guns in a threatening manner or fire warning shots, but they remain unable to use deadly force except in self defense or to escape an emergency.

     SDF officials are studying options for the use of rubber bullets and other nonlethal gear. Meanwhile, the government is readying rules of engagement that will specify when and how SDF members can fire their weapons. 

     There has been little substantive debate in parliament on ensuring SDF members' safety in the context of their broader mandate. With an election looming, the government intends to hold off on training exercises meant to prepare the SDF for their new duties. 

     "It needs to be stated clearly that the risks to the SDF have gone up in order to reduce the risks to nation as a whole," said former Ground SDF Chief of Staff Yoshifumi Hibako.

(Nikkei)

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