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Cabinet decision on 'rush and rescue' a turning point for SDF dispatch overseas

Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force members participating in U.N. peacekeeping operations are seen in South Sudan's capital of Juba in this July 24, 2015 file photo (Mainichi)

With the approval by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of "rush-and-rescue" missions by Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) participating in U.N. peacekeeping operations (PKO) in South Sudan, the SDF's role overseas has reached a major turning point.

The role of the SDF is expanding under security-related legislation that was passed in September last year and went into effect this March, and its full-fledged implementation will mean that the SDF will face greater risks. The Abe administration has emphasized that it will institute the SDF's new capabilities in a limited capacity, but in order to contribute internationally under the slogan of what Abe calls "proactive pacifism," the government is stepping up efforts to create a fait accompli.

At a press conference following the Nov. 15 Cabinet meeting, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada told reporters that the activities -- including rush-and-rescue operations -- of GSDF personnel who are set to be rotated into South Sudan will be limited to the capital city of Juba and its neighboring areas.

Even after Japan's new security laws went into force in March, the Abe administration put off assigning the GSDF new missions or starting new drills out of concern for how such moves might affect the July House of Councillors election. Despite such tip-toeing, armed conflicts that broke out between South Sudan's government forces and anti-government rebels were an unexpected miscalculation on the part of the Japanese government. It later emerged that South Sudan's government troops had attacked NGO workers, and the perception that South Sudan is in a state of civil war has become the norm.

The Japanese government has repeatedly said that things are relatively calm in Juba, and dispatched Defense Minister Inada and Masahiko Shibayama, an aide to the prime minister, to the capital, where they met with senior South Sudanese government officials and U.N. officials to demonstrate the safety of the city.

Inada has clearly stated that in the case of a "conflict" like the one that took place in Juba in July, the GSDF would not engage in rush-and-rescue operations. Since the foundations of the Abe administration will no doubt be undermined if there were to be any casualties or injuries as the result of a rush-and-rescue operation, "As a general rule, a rush-and-rescue operation likely won't be carried out without the prime minister's go-ahead," a senior defense ministry official said.

It is because the Abe administration wants -- under its policy of "proactive pacifism" -- to promote Japan's contributions to the international community and to build a track record of the SDF's accomplishments toward an expansion of the SDF's role under new security laws that the Abe administration insists on sending the GSDF on rush-and-rescue operations. At a U.N. conference held in New York in September last year, Prime Minister Abe gave a speech in which he declared that Japan will expand its contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations under its new security-related legislation. For Japan, dispatching SDF on peacekeeping operations, a way of contributing through personnel, is crucial as it is calling for U.N. reform with aspirations of becoming a permanent member of its Security Council.

Japan's decision to participate in the U.N.'s mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) in 2011 is said to have been politically motivated, as "it would please the U.S., which demanded the dispatch of the SDF," according to a government source. Because no other countries decided to pull out of South Sudan after the armed clash in July citing political instability, not participating wasn't an option for Japan.

The GSDF's rush-and-rescue operations serve as a touchstone in the increased implementation of Japan's new security legislation, particularly in the context of the Japan-U.S. alliance. Joint Japan-U.S. military drills that were carried out between late October and early November were conducted on the first-ever premise that the Japanese government had determined there was a grave situation affecting Japan's peace and security, which permits the SDF to engage in logistics support for the U.S. military even in remote places far from Japan, under the new security laws.

The U.S. presidential election ended in a victory for Donald Trump, who during his campaign called for Japan to shoulder more of the financial burden for keeping U.S. troops in Japan, and is worrying some about the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance. In terms of actual operations, however, increased collaboration is expected. On Nov. 10, shortly after the U.S. presidential election, the SDF's Joint Chief of Staff Katsutoshi Kawano and Lt. Gen. Jerry Martinez, head of U.S. forces in Japan, held a joint press conference in Yamaguchi Prefecture, in which Martinez assured that there would be "absolutely no degradation in the alliance and the friendship" between Japan and the U.S. If Trump were to go through with his inward-looking foreign and security policies, there's a possibility that the international community will call on Japan to contribute more. "We want to carefully conduct rush-and-rescue operations to acclimate the Japanese public to an expansion of the scope of the SDF's activities," a Japanese ruling party source explained as being the government's aim.

Rush-and-rescue missions are an integral part of controversial security legislation that split Japanese public opinion. The institution of such operations into SDF missions came up for the first time when SDF troops were dispatched on a peacekeeping mission to Cambodia in 1992. Later, during peacekeeping operations in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and East Timor, the SDF took in and transported Japanese civilians out of those countries, calling the missions "transport" of Japanese nationals. According to a senior SDF official, the Cabinet decision allowing the GSDF to conduct rush-and-rescue missions resolves the issue of such operations being carried out without much of a legal basis.

Meanwhile, the SDF is concerned that despite an expansion of its operations, limitations on its use of arms, to which forces from other countries are not subject, remain. Rush-and-rescue missions allow for the elimination of those who interfere with the GSDF's rush-and-rescue operations, but self-defense and emergency evacuation are the only conditions under which the use of force that could injure or kill the other party is permitted.

"The recent changes allow for warning shots to be fired sooner than before, but a warning shot could in turn escalate a situation, inviting attack," a GSDF source said. Additionally, when jointly guarding an encampment with the troops of other countries, if the GSDF were to clash with a faction of local government forces, the GSDF is subject to the limited use of arms to avoid violating the Constitution, which prohibits the use of force overseas.

The Mainichi Shimbun submitted a public disclosure of information request for documents relating to investigations and research on the possibility of GSDF personnel being killed or wounded in rush-and-rescue operations, to which the Defense Ministry responded in September that relevant documents do not exist. The SDF has not once fired a weapon overseas, and there's no knowing the repercussions of such a "first."

The benefits of "the protection of Japanese nationals," which the Japanese government promotes as being a major advantage of the GSDF's new ability to engage in rush-and-rescue missions, remain murky. When the armed clash that erupted in South Sudan in July escalated, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) requested that the GSDF transport its staff, but to no avail. As it turned out, the GSDF's peacekeeping personnel's activities at the time were limited to the confines of U.N. facilities in order to ensure their safety. "It's difficult for the SDF to sidestep the U.N. framework and act independently," a Japanese defense ministry source explained. "Going forward, it will be a challenge coordinating the rescue of Japanese nationals when such requests come in."

Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of Japan dispatching its SDF personnel for peacekeeping operations. It is said that the U.N. has increasingly placed priority on the protection of civilians, and peacekeeping operations have shifted toward active intervention in civil conflicts. The peacekeeping mission in South Sudan was predicated on a conflict between Sudan and South Sudan, but has taken an unexpected turn in which government and anti-government forces within South Sudan are now fighting, according to a former GSDF official. It is within this state of affairs that the Abe administration is advocating its policy of "proactive pacifism."

"There's no way we will take the SDF completely out of peacekeeping operations," a senior SDF official said. "But under current circumstances, there's no destination aside from South Sudan where GSDF personnel could be dispatched."

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