The Japanese government decided on March 10 to pull out a Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) engineering unit engaged in United Nations peacekeeping operations in South Sudan at the end of May, saying the troops have achieved a certain level of results in road maintenance and other missions.
"We had been looking into the pullout of our troops since around September last year, ahead of the fifth anniversary (of their dispatch to South Sudan)," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference, emphasizing that the government decision was not a sudden about-face.
With the security situation in South Sudan showing no signs of stabilizing, however, the reality behind the move is that the government took growing public concern about the troop dispatch, on top of the need to ensure the safety of GSDF personnel, into consideration.
If the local security condition keeps deteriorating and any GSDF member is killed, the government "would instantly lose public confidence that it has built up over the years," according to a senior Defense Ministry official. The public has grown more skeptical about the troop dispatch to South Sudan since a major armed conflict erupted in the capital of Juba between government and insurgency forces in July last year.
In the meantime, proponents of the GSDF dispatch have claimed that Japan shouldn't be quick to pull out its troops, as the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has advocated what he calls "proactive contributions to peace" and the GSDF mission in South Sudan is Japan's only contribution to PKO activities at the moment.
Amid controversy, the government had been searching carefully for the appropriate timing of a troop withdrawal. With the dispatch period for the GSDF 11th division currently in South Sudan expiring at the end of March, the government faced a looming deadline for deciding whether to extend the period.
The fact that the security situation in Juba is in a temporary lull also prompted the government to make the withdrawal decision because "if we pull out the troops after the situation deteriorates, we would come under fire from the international community and it would also become difficult to secure the safety of troops," according to a senior SDF official. Thus came the government announcement of the SDF's withdrawal, citing achievements in road maintenance and other missions. In addition to extending the dispatch period for the 11th division by two months from the originally scheduled date of March 31, the government plans to dispatch extra personnel to help out with transport and other work related to the troop withdrawal.
In its March 10 announcement, the government listed up achievements made by the GSDF engineering unit in South Sudan, such as "road repair work covering some 210 kilometers and preparation of a total of around 500,000 square meters of land for construction." The government emphasized that it determined it was time to pull out the engineering unit as "it is appropriate to shift the focus of support from engineering work to aiding moves toward self-reliance."
In November last year, the 11th division was given new missions of "rush and rescue operations" and "joint protection of encampments," both of which were sanctioned under Japan's new security legislation. As the scope of the GSDF's use of weapons was expanded, it was believed likely that GSDF personnel would be engaged in these dangerous missions should the security situation worsen in South Sudan.
When the 11th division was sent to South Sudan, the government outlined a policy of "withdrawing the troops in case it has become difficult to carry out meaningful activities while securing the troops' safety," on top of Japan's so-called five principles for participating in PKO missions. The move was regarded by some observers as part of government preparations for a troop withdrawal in the future.
In February this year, it emerged that the term "combat" appeared in daily reports that the GSDF engineering unit compiled in July last year, a term that comes in conflict with Japan's war-renouncing Constitution. Defense Minister Tomomi Inada excused the fact before the Diet, saying, "The expression 'combat' would pose a problem under Article 9 of the Constitution, so we used the term 'armed clash.'" Opposition parties fired back, saying that the government was trying to cover up the truth that there had been combat. The largest opposition Democratic Party called for a swift withdrawal of the GSDF unit, saying, "Civilian control is not functioning adequately."
A ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who is versed in defense policy hailed the government's decision for a troop withdrawal, saying, "Should there be any deaths within the SDF, I wouldn't be surprised if the administration collapsed. It was a bold decision in the sense that the government managed to reduce ammunition for an attack by the opposition."