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'Unsinkable aircraft carrier' steams to Iraq
By Richard Hanson

TOKYO - Trying to figure Japan's attitude to security these days? You know: Can Japan fight? And what are Self-Defense Forces doing in the Iraqi desert?

Well, then "Defense of Japan 2002 White Paper" is a must read. Start at the beginning: "The Basis of Defense Policy."

"The Basic Policy for National Defense proclaims as the basis of Japan's defense policy: (i) the promotion of efforts for peace and establishment of the foundations for national security; and (ii) the development of an efficient defense capability and adherence to the Japan-United States Security Agreements."

Read: Japan is moving in the irreversible direction to become a global military power, albeit nothing like the US, which has a military presence in about 67 countries. An Asia Times Online headline writer described it as the "Deputy Superpower".

The point is that Japan's growth as the second or third most powerful military force has changed the geopolitical landscape. Not a full "blue water" force with battle groups prowling the Seven Seas. And Japan has the world's second-largest navy, considered on a par with the US 7th Fleet, which is deployed in the Asia-Pacific. Japan's ground forces, which are being cut back (to 145,000 troops plus 15,000 reservists), are 30 percent larger than Britain's army.

Other basic policies for Japan's national defense include an exclusively defense-oriented policy; not becoming a military power; adherence to the "Three Non-Nuclear Principles", which state that Japan shall not possess nuclear weapons, manufacture nuclear weapons or allow the introduction of nuclear weapons into Japan; and ensuring civilian control of the military.

Read: Whoa! What the heck is Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi doing?

Koizumi: most hawkish pro-US PM in years
This is the most hawkish, pro-US-Japan "alliance" politician since the 1980s, when former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone coined the phrase "unsinkable aircraft carrier" in describing the bilateral security relationship. From day one after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US, Prime Minister Koizumi has stood side-by-side with US President George W Bush.

To cheer on the Koizumi government's dispatch of Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to join "alliance" forces in Iraq, the formidable US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage staged a high-profile, two-day visit to Tokyo this week. The tone of the visit was almost congratulatory. Japan was earning points, and perhaps respect, for contributing more than just money. (Don't forget that Japan has pledged more money than any other nation after the US, a total of US$5 billion over three years in help for rebuilding Iraq following the US-lead invasion in March 2003. During the first 1991 Gulf War, Japan was pilloried in the public's eye for hesitantly ponying up a large $11-12 billion or so in "check-book" diplomacy.)

Money alone doesn't win respect. That was the Armitage message. "It's such a historic change at home in the life of your nation and indeed of our alliance," Armitage said in his first speech before the Japan National Press Club. "In this time of change at home, in the region and around the world, Japan has not been caught standing still. Japan is putting its skillful hands on the tiller of the international community."

Armitage also praised Koizumi for helping to build "a new era of confidence", while placating any not-so-latent hostilities among other countries in the region. "Those are ghosts of the past - they have no place in the present," Armitage told the press club audience.

Of course, what the American diplomat may have dodged is the problem of how fragile the current support for the Koizumi government's policies may be at home - especially if something goes badly wrong in Iraq. Koizumi is keenly aware of those risks, since he is Japan's equivalent of commander-in-chief, a role that is spelled out in the law governing the Self-Defense Forces.

There is a considerable unease among people, even though there are only a smattering of public anti-war demonstrations. Other security issues in the past year or so have proven more evocative. These include the problems of North Korea's threat of nuclear weapons, and the lack of a final resolution to the highly emotional issue of Japanese who were abducted a couple decades ago by North Korean agents. For many Japanese, the issue of the abductees raises both the question of security and the gut feelings of safety and what the army is sent forth to do.

What may surprise some television viewers in Japan is that the first major contingent of the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), some 90 soldiers, will look very much like a fighting army as they load up for the trip from Kuwait to the southern Iraqi town of Samawah. Their mission, however, is strictly humanitarian.

Troops tote medicine and anti-tank weapons
Earlier in January, a small advance group of soldiers was seen as they were escorted safely by seasoned Dutch troops, who are stationed near where the Japanese are setting up camp. This time the GSDF will ride in their own column of 50 armored vehicles and trucks. Japan's mission, under the orders of the government, is providing medical care, repairing public facilities and providing for water supplies and other amenities. Along with hammers and shovels, they are described as toting heavy arms, such as anti-tank weapons.

In the next couple months, there will be around 1,000 Japanese military (air force, maritime and ground) personnel in and around Iraq, performing Japan's most ambitious "humanitarian and reconstruction" mission overseas. As has been trumpeted loud and clear, these soldiers represent the first time since World War II that Japan has sent troops to what all agree is a war zone.

Only the government insists that this piece of parched territory is located in a "non-combat" area. So far, no one has been shot. There has been the inevitable speculation that Japan may just try to buy some of the security of their troops. As the advance troops arrived, hordes of Japanese TV reporters who descended on Samawah showed the local town fathers assuring safety as long as the Japanese brought along paying jobs.

That is, of course, is a very sensible thing to do.

Koizumi, when asked about a report that stated Japan was willing to give $95 million to local bigwigs to protect the troops, said: "It is rather cheap if we can buy security for our soldiers with that amount of money."

Seen from the perspective of Japan's over-defense capabilities, the world is also adjusting to Japan's emergence as an armed Japan, as spelled out in the "Defense of Japan 2002 White Paper" and its basis for defense policy.

These defense capabilities were developed from the 1970s, when the priorities reflected a much more anti-military political atmosphere. The emphasis was on minimum defensive capabilities to defend against an invasion, say, from the north by the defunct USSR, hence lots of tanks in Hokkaido.

Japan's hardware unmatched in NE Asia
Japan's latest hardware is unmatched in Northeast Asia and it includes the most advanced F-15 fighters (second only in numbers to the US) and surveillance aircraft. These are backed up by an impressive ability to refuel in mid-air for long periods of time. The Maritime Self-Defense Force has more than 50 advanced destroyers - more than the number deployed by the US 7th Fleet in the Pacific - four escort flotillas with helicopters and other missile capabilities.

Most of this came out of the original mission of supplementing the US Navy's capabilities in such things as mine warfare and anti-submarine work. A blue-water navy is not needed for such tasks. Japan's current naval strength has been demonstrated in non-combat duties taken on during and since the Afghan war, when the most advanced of the Maritime Self-Defense force ships were sent to the Indian Ocean.

What impresses military experts is not only the quality of the hardware, but also the intense training of military personnel. There is a "spiritual" side to this. For the half century or so of the SDF's existence, the forces have finally been given a chance to prove their worth.

All the better if they can do so, without having to fire a shot in anger. Defense is allowed.

The Defense White paper is clear about the hot issue of whether Japan needs to change its war-averse 1947 Constitution, in which Article 9 rules out war as a policy option.

Under the clause, "The Constitution and the Right of Self-Defense", it says:

"The Constitution does not deny the inherent right of self-defense that Japan is entitled to maintain as a sovereign state, and it allows Japan to possess the minimum level of armed strength to defend that right.

"The exercise of the right of self-defense is restricted to instances in which three criteria apply. In addition, the Government believes that the exercise of the right of collective self-defense is not permissible under the Constitution."

In a speech before the troops in Hokkaido, the northern island where much of the military is based, the prime minister indirectly addressed the conflict between the issues of safety and security: "The situation in Iraq is not necessarily one hundred percent safe ... but I expect you to do whatever you can within the scope of your duty," he said. "You are not going to war in Iraq, nor to exercise force, nor to engage in combat, but to help the Iraqi people in reconstructing their country," he said.

"I am praying that all of you will return home unhurt."

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Feb 7, 2004

Feckless opposition can't halt troop dispatch
(Feb 5, '04)

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(Jan 27, '04)


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