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East Timor Crisis Accelerates Japan’s Evolution

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East Timor Crisis Accelerates Japan’s National Evolution

20 September 1999

Summary

Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has said that discussions are underway to modify the laws governing the country’s Self Defense Forces in order to allow active participation in the U.N. mission in East Timor. Obuchi’s comment is part of a larger but less publicly expressed debate over the future role of Japan as a full-blown international player. Within Japan, the focus is on the subtleties of this evolution. However, the rest of the world’s attention is on the final outcome of the process – a Japan that can express itself not only economically, but also politically and militarily.

Analysis

Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said Sept. 17 that the Japanese government would consider modifying the laws governing the Self Defense Forces (SDF) in order to allow participation in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in East Timor. Obuchi, speaking during a panel discussion of other Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential contenders, indicated the LDP and its coalition partners the Liberal Party (LP) and New Komeito had already begun to discuss changes to the 1992 law governing the international peacekeeping role of the SDF. Obuchi expressed confidence that such a move would pass through the extraordinary Diet session set for October, saying, "As the three parties [LDP, LP and New Komeito] hold the same idea, it will be passed through the Diet. And the government is not unwilling to go in that direction."

Obuchi’s call for a reassessment of Japan’s role in multinational peacekeeping operations comes amid similar calls from within and without the country. Several Japanese newspapers have cited East Timor as an opportunity for Japan to contribute more than aid money to the international effort, and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, in Japan for a five-day visit, called for Japan to take a more active role in world affairs. Japan and Canada agreed to "cooperate in the international efforts to attain a peaceful solution for the East Timor situation," according to Obuchi.

The debate over the participation of SDF troops in East Timor, which will set the precedent for all future multinational operations in which the troops could come under fire, is part of a larger debate in Japan about the overall role of the SDF. As the government starts to modify the role of the SDF in U.N. missions, the issue inevitably carries over to Article IX of the Japanese Constitution, which states that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation," and that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained."

Japan has come to realize that it is in a new and dangerous world, and in due course it will have to defend itself like every other nation. As the World War II generation dies, so does the notion that revoking the right of belligerency was a just punishment for World War II. The government is now using the laws limiting the SDF to manage its level of exposure and involvement in world events.

The United States is the cornerstone of Japan’s current defense policy. While no official overarching policy change is being discussed at the moment, Japan will eventually be forced to face the reality that U.S. tolerance for the lack of Japanese risk assumption is evaporating. Simultaneously, Japan’s confidence that U.S. policy is made in the best interest of Japan, and that U.S. troops would put themselves at risk to defend Japanese interests and assets, is also evaporating.

A new definition for the role of the SDF in the context of the United Nations would set the stage for the possibility that Japanese troops might expose and assert themselves independent of U.S. policy initiatives. As in all things Japanese, these future changes are not neatly laid out in exhaustive policy papers or discussed in polite company. Nevertheless, everyone in the government has been forced to confront and deal with these thoughts. The silence on the larger implications of a changed SDF role does not mean that a rational and self-conscious policy isn’t evolving.

As the second largest economy in the world, Japan has exposed resources, assets and supply lines around the world that need management and protection. It is unthinkable that a country of such economic prominence has no political or military tools with which to mitigate its international exposure. The ultimate outcome of the process – the emergence of Japan as a normal nation that can express itself not only economically, but also politically and militarily – is less in debate than the evolution whereby it achieves that status. To those outside Japan, it is this end of a modern Japan no longer constrained by its post-World War II constitution, rather than the process by which it is reached, that is of most interest.


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