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Expanded SDF missions under new security laws put on hold

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers a speech during the graduation ceremony at the National Defense Academy in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, on March 21, 2016. (Mainichi)

The new security legislation that allows Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense came into force on March 29, amid massive public protests across the country. Though the government and the ruling parties rushed to pass the controversial security bills into law during the ordinary Diet session last year, they are now practicing caution in implementing the expanded missions of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in the face of this summer's House of Councillors election.

On March 22, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani told a press conference that a new mission to rescue foreign troops in remote locations during United Nations peacekeeping operations (PKO) in South Sudan will not be carried out when replacement SDF personnel are dispatched there in May and June.

The SDF will also be spared, for the time being, from another new mission to jointly protect PKO camps alongside foreign troops. The SDF personnel's right to use force has now been expanded from the "self-preservation" type -- under which they protect themselves and people nearby -- to the "performing of duties" type -- under which the firing of warning shots is permitted if their missions are obstructed. However, such new authority has yet to be tested with the mobilization of actual troops even though the arrangements "had been mostly sorted out by last fall," according to a source close to the SDF.

The government is not planning to carry out the new SDF mission of defending U.S. vessels in peacetime in case they come under attack as a result of accidental conflicts until after Japan and the United States formulate operational guidelines. Revisions to the Japan-U.S. Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, under which Japan's provision of supplies and services to U.S. forces are to be expanded, have also been pushed back to the next Diet session at the earliest. SDF drills for its fresh mission of rescuing Japanese nationals caught up in emergency situations abroad, which was sanctioned under the revised Self-Defense Forces Act, have yet to be conducted, even though the government had considered such drills in December last year.

Behind such delays lies the government and ruling parties' wariness of sparking a resurgence of public criticism against the security laws ahead of the upper house election.

"It is the prime minister's office's intention to refrain from doing anything that would attract attention until after the upper house election," said a senior SDF official, revealing the fact that any preparations for the SDF's new missions following the security laws' implementation are being put off due to political discretion.

"I know SDF troops may want to conduct drills at an early date, but from a political standpoint, we should 'not wake a sleeping lion,'" said a source close to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Apparently, the SDF's primary missions that were newly authorized under the security laws will be implemented only after the upper house race.

Kazuo Kitagawa, deputy head of the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, who led the ruling party consultations over the security legislation last year, told reporters on March 28, "Just because the (security) laws have come into force, it does not mean they will be applied immediately. We will exercise caution to the extreme in administering the laws."

The government and ruling parties scrambled to pass the security bills into law last year in disregard of strong protest from the public. Kenji Eda, acting president of the new opposition Democratic Party (DP), told a March 28 press conference, "They are pushing back the implementation of the laws until after the (upper house) election because they feel a sense of guilt about it. If the laws make them feel guilty, they should be repealed."

The DP, which was launched on March 27 through the merger of the Democratic Party of Japan and the Japan Innovation Party, is now working with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and other opposition parties to back the same candidates in upper house constituencies where one seat each will be up for grabs in the chamber's upcoming election, to put up a united front toward abolition of the security legislation.

In an attempt to curb such moves by the opposition camp, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the LDP's party convention on March 13, "The JCP's goal is to dissolve the SDF and scrap the Japan-U.S. security treaty."

Whether the ruling parties want it or not, the security laws are certain to be a major point of contention in the upper house race -- the first national election to be held since the security laws were enacted in September last year.

Behind the government's hasty move to update the Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines and develop related laws lies China's ongoing military buildup. Beijing's repeated maritime advances in the East China Sea and the South China Sea are a common source of concern for Tokyo and Washington.

While the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama has pursued a security policy of rebalancing its focus to the Asia-Pacific region in the face of China's rise, his government has no choice but to cut back on defense outlays due to fiscal constraints. Washington has therefore counted on the SDF to expand its logistical support for U.S. forces, even more than on the SDF being allowed to exercise the right to collective self-defense.

A Japanese government source emphasizes that the security laws came about at Tokyo's own initiative and not at Washington's request, but in reality, Tokyo developed the legislation out of a need to keep U.S. involvement in the region.

While Japanese and American experts in foreign and security policies call for further strengthening of the Japan-U.S. alliance, there has yet to be in-depth debate in the Diet on the increased risks to SDF personnel resulting from expanding missions.

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