The previous post on Japan’s SDF potentially taking part in a new peacekeeping operation in South Sudan led to some useful discussion in the comments section. The issue was back on the agenda this week with Ban Ki-moon touching down in Japan and requesting Japanese participation.

To be clear, the South Sudan mission would be a step-up for the SDF in terms of mission responsibility. As Philip Shelter-Jones from the University of Sheffield writes:

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

If Japan were to participate in a comprehensive way in this mission it would require new rules of engagement to be drawn up, particularly on the SDF’s use of weapons which are currently restricted. The current “Five Peacekeeping Principles” would not allow the SDF to participate and legislation would still be required to authorize the mission, as discussion about a new permanent law on the SDF’s international dispatch has not progressed in the last two years.

However with Japan dealing with its own reconstruction issues, and with Prime Minister Kan being a politician unlikely to spend any political capital on foreign policy issues at the best of times, it was probably no surprise when Minister of Defense Kitazawa gave a lukewarm response to Ban’s request for SDF participation. The Asahi reports (jp) that Ban initially had hoped for a 300-person engineer unit to be deployed, particularly to work on road improvements and infrastructure. Kitazawa however, would at this point only commit to a few SDF staff being dispatched to UNMISS HQ in Juba in a more organizational role. Jiji reports (jp) that Kitazawa  raised concerns about overextending the GSDF who were currently deployed in Haiti and are only now finishing up response efforts in the Tohoku region. Kitazawa also raised concerns about safety and security conditions. Apparently inside government there is also concern (jp) about the security issues surrounding an early commitment of troops to South Sudan.

This hesitancy could be explained a number of ways. Needless to say the over-extended GSDF argument is a more than valid one. As mentioned the political situation is not a particularly enabling one for advancing this kind of legislative and  institutional change. Of course others may put the hesitancy down to general squeamishness about Japanese troops entering unstable security environments on the part of Japanese officials reacting to public opinion. Alternatively there may be genuine concerns about Japanese GSDF readiness on the one hand to participate in these types of missions, as well as the inadequacy of current institutional arrangements and restrictions that could jeopardize the GSDF’s ability to conduct this kind of mission, and the safety of the unit itself. Or it could be all of the above.

But it may be too soon to completely write off a bolder response at some point in time.  In addition to the Yomiuri and the Mainichi editorials we also have a third major Japanese paper editorial coming out in support of the mission over at the Nikkei (jp).

The Nikkei article argues, like the others, that the dispatch would be an appropriate contribution to international society given international support in the light of the triple disaster. As the US is taking a leadership role in the UNMISS, it also mentioned the need to indirectly support the alliance through this measure.

The current political situation is still a significant barrier but in the last few days the situation around Kan’s resignation has cleared up considerably and by the end of the month the DPJ and the Japanese government should have new leadership. Would there be an incentive for a new leader, perhaps a leader like Noda or Maehara, to expend political capital in pushing forward the necessary reforms that would allow more comprehensive GSDF participation in South Sudan?

As was discussed with Philip and Robert in the comments section on the previous post, it may well be the case that the triple disaster and the significant international response that Japan received introduces a compelling factor into Japan’s view of its international relations’ obligations, and its general overall perception of its international connectedness. Given that the US military was a major contributor to the rescue effort, this introduces an additional aspect of what could be called ‘moral’ compellence to the equation, as mentioned by the Nikkei editorial. We also should not forget that the greatly improved image of the SDF among the public may also be an enabling factor. Another enabling factor may also be that it offers an excellent opportunity for the two major parties to work together on an issue that a fair majority of both parties’ members would likely support. Both parties inside and outside of government have talked about the need for a permanent law that enables more comprehensive Japanese participation in peacekeeping operations. In particular the faction within the LDP most concerned about its party’s recent moves towards a closer relationship with the DPJ in the last week or so may be brought into political negotiations by way of this issue. For those like Ishiba Shigeru and Koike Yuriko who have supported such reforms in the past, it would be very difficult for them to refuse to cooperate on this issue.

Robert also suggested that a Korean connection could be made through this mission and Ban Ki-moon’s nationality. Indeed the Korean military and JGSDF have cooperated with each other before in the context of humanitarian relief (Haiti). However tensions around the most recent Dokdo/Takeshima flare-up make this a tough prospect, at least as a politically salient enabler in the short-term. But if Japan does find a way to participate in a more comprehensive way, then further ROK-Japan cooperation could and should be on the cards.

No matter what happens however the more pro-active tone of the three major editorials should be duly noted. They appear clear-eyed in regards to the potential dangers the SDF may come across and decisively advocate a response that has implications for Japan’s foreign policy norms. The Nikkei advocated that Japan should even go as far as drawing resources from the Haiti mission that may be winding down, in order to participate in UNMISS. Notwithstanding the genuine need for reconstruction to remain the focus of the Japanese government for the mean time, the missing ingredient may well be a leader who is interested enough in security and foreign policy issues to expend political capital on them. It might even be an issue where showing leadership has little risk and downside.

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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