When South Sudan became the world’s newest nation this past weekend UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon made an appeal for Japanese assistance for the UN Peacekeeping mission that will take place in South Sudan. Ban requested SDF helicopters in particular for the purposes of transferring 7-8000 peacekeeping operations personnel within the nation. Praising the leadership and organizational skills shown by the SDF in Haiti, Ban will officially request Japanese GSDF participation when he visits Japan in August (en).

Given the current political instability inside Japan, compounded by the recent disaster, one would probably not be surprised if the Japanese government was distracted by other matters. However, the Japanese media appears to be making a concerted push towards Japan taking on a more proactive role/ encouraging the government to make an ‘international contribution’ (国際貢献).

On July 9th the Yomiuri in an editorial came out critical (en) of a recent report (en) by a vice-ministerial level government council dedicated to the discussion of Japan’s participation in PKOs, saying that while it established “that Japan has a responsibility to play an active role in the international community through PKOs,” it didn’t go into enough detail in regards to how Japan might do that through the revision of the the five basic PKO principles (en) that govern Japan’s UN PKO participation. As a reminder they are:

1) Agreement on a ceasefire shall have been reached among the parties to armed conflict. 

2) Consent for conduct 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 conflict.

3) The operations shall strictly maintain impartiality, not favoring any of the parties to armed conflict. 

4) Should any of the requirements in the above-mentioned guideline cease to be satisfied, the International Peace Cooperation Corps may suspend International Peace Cooperation Assignments. Unless the requirements are satisfied again in a short term, the Government of Japan may terminate the dispatch of the personnel engaged in International Peace Cooperation Assignments. 

5) The use of weapons shall be within the limits judged reasonably necessary according to the circumstances.

It argued that revision of the restrictions on the use of weapons during PKO missions should be the area of priority. Indeed it could be argued that in their specific application so far this restriction could hamper the conduct of a Sudan mission, potentially put SDF members in danger, and probably lead to them becoming a burden (en) on other participants. The editorial provided these two examples:

Even if someone blocks its way, an SDF unit is not allowed to fire a warning shot. It has no choice but to take another route….If SDF members cannot use weapons unless they first put their lives in danger to deliberately create a “self-defense” situation in which they are allowed to use them, then the true priorities in the situation have been inverted. SDF members should be allowed to use weapons to carry out their missions in accordance with international standards on PKOs.

The editorial also argued for a reconsideration of two of the other principles, namely the ones pertaining to ceasefire, and host country consent, arguing that these two principles do not reflect realistic situations on the ground in UN peacekeeping missions, and that it can be difficult to establish host country consent and/or when a ceasefire breaks down. The aforementioned council’s report back to the government also emphasised these complications, saying (according to the Mainichi article linked to above):

As the nature of global conflicts and peacekeeping operations have evolved since the principles were established by the 1992 PKO cooperation law, they often make it difficult for Japan to deploy forces despite its hopes of a more active international role.

A day or so later after the Yomiuri interviewed Ban Ki Moon, it then published another editorial which came out in support (en) of Japan contributing to the South Sudan peacekeeping mission. It argued that considering the suffering and hardship Sudan has suffered over the last 30 years, international assistance is vital for maintaining stability and cooperation between Sudan and the new South Sudanese state. In justifying why outside help is needed and why Japan should contribute it says that as South Sudan has “ insufficient infrastructure services such as water supply and roads, [and] South Sudan has a low literacy rate and lacks human resources” it requires outside help. It also makes mention of the fact that Japan already has aid and ongoing infrastructure projects in the country facilitated through JICA.

So far the Yomiuri’s narrative is in line with what has seemingly now become the mainstream perspective on Japanese PKO participation.

However the editorial reflects upon a couple of extra factors that are worthy of greater attention. First, it cites remaining concerns about boundary delimitation in Sudan between north and south. The possibility for further clashes over resources (ie and a breakdown of the ceasefire) related to the contested oil fields in particular looms large. Quoting the editorial:

In defiance of the peace agreement, the north Sudanese administration led by President Omar Bashir has been stationing military troops in oil fields near the boundary. The north, as promised, should withdraw its military forces in line with progress in the mobilization of U.N. peacekeeping forces so that the boundaries can be drawn peacefully.

Despite the specifically articulated danger and the possibility for clashes the article does not however hesitate to recommend the dispatch of SDF forces. Given the hand-wringing over the definition of a combat zones versus a non-combat zones in the lead-up to the deployment of the SDF for reconstruction in Iraq, if a forceful commitment was made by the Japanese government given these circumstances, this would suggest an evolution in terms of not just the acceptance of a Japanese obligation to make an ‘international contribution,’ but also an evolution in terms of the norms of how Japan should make such a contribution. In blunt terms, it would raise the most likely possibility to date of a Japanese troop dying in active combat for the defense of democracy/independence of another nation. It also raises the possibility that Japanese forces, even in self-defense, may find themselves in a combat situation with another international actor – in this case the state of (north) Sudan.1

Another interesting take-away in this article is the explicit reference to China’s culpability in the tensions between north and south:

China, above all, has a responsibility to work toward stabilizing relations between Sudan and South Sudan. This is because China, out of the desire to secure oil resources, has helped to sustain the Bashir administration, which has pursued inhuman policies.

Notice the contrast of China’s “cynical” contribution to the conflict with (what the Yomiuri hopes to be) Japan’s own more constructive and morally robust contribution. All things being equal this particular view of China’s influence in Sudan is not new, but it is worth bearing in mind that in a former geopolitical incarnation, Japan’s own view of international obligations and the pursuit of national (economic and resource-based) self-interest was probably more similar to China’s than it was to the “liberal” West – for better or ill depending on your perspective. From the point of view of the evolution of Japan’s international identity this  narrative is worthy of ongoing attention.

However, this is just the point of view of the Yomiuri, who during the Iraq war was calling for a much more proactive stance than what was eventually settled on, so in of itself it may not be significant. Which is why it is also of interest to note that the Mainichi Shimbun yesterday published an editorial (jp) also arguing for the need for Japan to make an international contribution.

It starts by saying that for purposes of nation-building South Sudan requires the help of the international community and that Japan should respond pro-actively to any UN requests for GSDF troops. It identifies the conflict between north and south as having derived from a mix of ethnic, geographic and religious tension, and the article then provides readers with some context about the conflict. This includes the necessary discussion of tensions over oil resources which has led, despite the potential wealth South Sudan in particular has, to underdeveloped infrastructure, poverty and a lack of human resources needed for nation-building. Therefore any PKO mission would be expected to preside over the observation and implementation of the agreed armistice, public order and policing reform, and the building of vital infrastructure such as roads, water and sanitation, and hospitals.

In addition to the seemingly self-evident obligation that Japan has to make a contribution to South Sudan’s development, another justification the Mainichi puts forward is that Japan’s PKO participation (including further ODA contributions and assistance to Sudan) would be one way to thank the international community for the assistance granted to Japan after Tohoku – namely by utilizing the experience that the GSDF has already gained during nation-building missions in Haiti, Iraq, East Timor and Cambodia.

The article is however cautious and reflects on the need to be realistic about the potential barriers to effective nation-building in South Sudan. Like the Yomiuri, it points to the as yet unresolved situation over the division of oil receipts between the two countries, which it implies could lead to fighting again breaking out if negotiations do not proceed smoothly.

It also points to the possibility that resource-hungry great powers may complicate the resolution of such negotiations by putting their own interests first. The Mainichi is somewhat more diplomatic than the Yomiuri when it mentions the US-Chinese global competition for resources, although in the Sudanese situation China’s influence is likely much more the focus of this comment. Nevertheless it does indicate a justified wariness about increased US-China tensions, competition, and the implications for countries stuck in the middle of such competition.

Similar to the Yomiuri, I believe it is interesting that in arguing for a Japanese and SDF contribution to South Sudan, the Mainichi also does not sugar-coat the reality and the potential danger in which Japanese peacekeepers may be putting themselves. There is much work to do however and it would need to start by August when UN Secretary General Ban visits. Clearly dispatching the SDF to Sudan under the current PKO principles will be insufficient given the complex situation in the region. Either the principles need to be revised permanently through new legislation on peacekeeping operations and/or SDF overseas dispatch, or another special measures law will need to be passed to ensure the SDF is able to carry out its mission properly in Sudan at least.

It is less than clear however that the current government leadership is up to the task. The initial cabinet response was somewhat positive but in terms of the process of moving legislation through the Diet this is another matter. In this particular case the utter disarray within the DPJ might well be the barrier – the legislative changes required have already been articulated by the LDP in the past, so these statements could be used to pressure the other side of the Diet into agreement. The DPJ’s own view on foreign policy would also under normal circumstances allow for such changes to be made. Party unity and commitment to founding principles is  however not something that should be be taken for granted with the DPJ right now as opportunism seems to be running rampant – and it is less than clear that Kan can demonstrate the necessary leadership or even interest in regards to this issue given that the DPJ appears to have gone on foreign policy autopilot (and in some ways justifiably so) since the articulation of the NDPG at the end of last year.

1 Article 9 explicitly refers to Japan not having the right to settle “international disputes” by use of force. One proposal to avoid constitutional revision is for any future permanent law on SDF/PKO is make explicit reference to “non-international” conflicts as ones that Japan can use force (a non-international conflict in international law is a conflict that involves non-state actors or state actors on one side and non-state actors on the other). I am not an expert on international law (so happy to receive correction) so it could be the case that Japanese serving under the UN banner would not technically be caught up in an “international conflict” if UN troops came under fire during the course of their operations, although this would be some creative logic. 

Update: A commenter has left a very valuable insight which indicates even more strongly that if Japan does participate in the South Sudan it is likely not going to be a run of the mill exercise and will require some rethinking of current PKO policy/legislation:

 It is also worth noting something the editorials have not mentioned – that the Security Council resolution (1996) mandating the new mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) includes protection of civilians tasking. Paragraphs 3 (b) v and vi describe this as follows:
(v) Deterring violence including through proactive deployment and patrols in areas at high risk of conflict, within its capabilities and in its areas of deployment, protecting civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, in particular when the Government of the Republic of South Sudan is not providing such security;
(vi) Providing security for United Nations and humanitarian personnel, installations and equipment necessary for implementation of mandated tasks, bearing in mind the importance of mission mobility, and contributing to the creation of security conditions conducive to safe, timely, and unimpeded humanitarian assistance;

Many thanks to Philip Shelter-Jones for the above.

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 51 post(s) on Japan Security Watch