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  May 3, 2002  

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US puts Japan in a spot over Iraq

By Axel Berkofsky

Just when Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was getting ready to celebrate his first year in office, United States government officials were asking Japan to be ready for the worst-case scenario.

At a Japan-US working-level meeting on foreign and defense affairs at the end of April, US government representatives informally requested Japan to be ready to dispatch troops and the state-of-the-art Aegis destroyers to the Persian Gulf in the event of a US attack on Iraq.

"Politically and legally difficult" was the immediate answer from Japanese officials, expressing somehow less enthusiasm about Japan's support for US military operations than Koizumi, who promised nothing less than "unconditional support" for the US fight against global terrorism when visited by US President George W Bush earlier in February.

Asking for support to get rid of Saddam Hussein is an unpleasant reminder for Japan that the US is serious about militarily engaging its junior alliance partner into the fight against international terrorism, although Japanese policy makers seemingly do not really see reason to worry just yet. "We are not taking Washington's requests terribly seriously because the US side did not push very hard," the prime minister's security policy advisors commented after the US-Japan meeting, indicating that Japanese policy makers prefer to stay in the usual wait-and-see-mode and in sticking to their strategy of last-minute decisions.

"It is important to keep Tokyo focused on what may be ahead. The US will accept no more Japanese Persia Gulf War experiences even if military action against Iraq is not yet imminent," counters an American expert of Japanese security policy, indicating that the US will without a doubt make sure to get its message across when Japanese support for US military operations is on the agenda. Currently, Japanese supply vessels are refueling American and British warships in the Indian Ocean close to the island of Diego Garcia as part of Japan's rear-area support for the US-led military operation in Afghanistan.

The US request to dispatch high-tech Aegis warships and P3C anti-submarine patrol aircraft to the Arabian Sea and on to the Persian Gulf somehow indicates that US strategic planners might have new plans for the Japanese military, expecting support beyond logistical means in the event of a military strike against Iraq. Six months ago and after weeks of controversial discussions, mainly evolving around the question whether deploying the destroyers would already constitute an act of collective self-defense, the Japanese government turned down the first US request to dispatch Aegis destroyers to the Indian Ocean as a part of the Japanese supply fleet, claiming that the destroyers were militarily too high-profile for a self-declared pacifist country.

The Aegis destroyers, which Japan bought from the US in recent years, could indeed change the quality of Japan's contribution to US military operations when dispatched as they are equipped with radar able to detect missiles 300 kilometers away, interceptor missiles and weapon systems that closely complement American systems, thereby enabling Japanese Aegis vessels to share real-time battle data with sister ships of the US Navy. Despite the pleasant prospects of showing off with the high-tech ships in the Arabian Sea or Persian Gulf, it still remains to be seen whether the Japanese government is willing to promote its soldiers from gas pump attendants to "real" military allies engaged in joint operations with American soldiers close to the where fighting takes place.

Japanese discussions on the constitutionality of dispatching the destroyers are very likely to repeat themselves instead, although Japanese reluctance to use military power cannot stand in the way of a more active Japanese role in fighting global terrorism forever, claim supporters of a more visible Japanese contribution. "Japan is again unnecessarily gun-shy," complained a senior official from Japan's defense agency recently, adding that "worrying too much about criticism against Japan's military role from China and South Korea is only making Japan vulnerable to US pressure and bullying".

The Japanese government, for its part, however, is unlikely to make any decision before the usual US pressure sets in and is yet less impatient to see its troops sailing towards the Persian Gulf. For now it takes care to stick to the official line that dispatching ships and troops towards Iraq under the Japanese anti-terrorism law implemented last October is only possible if the al-Qaeda terrorist network is the target of an attack.

There is, however, little doubt that the Pentagon and US intelligence will have any difficulty linking the Iraqi regime to global terrorism and Osama bin Laden's network of terror, giving Japan a helping hand to speed up its decision-making process if necessary; the Asahi Shimbun, on the other hand, is urging its government to clarify its own stance on the country's position on the war against terrorism instead of repeating US rhetoric in parrot-style. "Japan must set limits for simply falling into line behind US policy. Koizumi continues to be a disappointment with his rhetoric of unconditional support of America," the paper recently wrote, wondering why Japan does not voice any opposition against attacking Iraq when everybody else does.

The US is indeed running out of allies supporting an attack on Iraq and asking Japan to be part of the shrinking anti-coalition comes at a time when even America's closest and loyal military ally, Britain, is having second thoughts about US plans to put an end to Saddam Hussein's regime by force.

The timing to request Japan's support, however, seemed somehow favorable since Japan's ruling coalition, led by the premier's Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) very recently submitted a package of three national emergency laws to the Diet enabling Japan's armed forces to defend Japanese security at home and abroad. The national security bills are likely to pass the Diet at the end of its current session on June 19 and Japan commentators are suspecting that the US might indeed have "seized the opportunity" in trying to make sure that America would be the first "beneficiary" of Japan's upgraded military profile.

A law, however, that would further strengthen US-Japanese military cooperation on Japanese territory and beyond allowing US troops unrestricted access to medical and infrastructure facilities on Japanese soil was withdrawn from the original law package, indicating that Japan's preparedness to fight alongside the US is not to be taken for granted just yet.

With the public relations disaster and unpleasant memories of American Japan-bashing for failing to send troops to liberate Kuwait from Saddam during the Gulf War a decade ago in mind, Japan's policy makers might be less willing to turn down the US request to sail to the Persian Gulf this time. "Japan is intensely worried about a repeat of the Persian Gulf and Korean peninsula crises of 1991 and 1994, which easily could have turned into crises for the US-security relationship if the United States had taken significant losses. At the same time, policy makers wish to avoid alarming the Japanese public and are probably hoping, in their heart of hearts, that this crisis would just go away," says Thomas U Berger, professor of International Relations at Boston University.

Given the Bush administration's determination to replace the Iraqi regime by force sooner rather than later, this, however, looks more like a case of wishful thinking, and while refueling American and British warships on "floating gas stations" far away from combat zones is acceptable to the Japanese public, sailing to the Persian Gulf and into the range of possible enemy fire is likely to cause strong public disapproval. With or without the public blessing and worries about dispatching troops without a clear-cut legal basis, the Japanese government is already more prepared to dispatch ships and troops to the Persian Gulf when requested in a straight line from Washington than it is yet willing to admit, suspects Berger. "Sending Japanese forces to the Gulf in a support role is a very real possibility this time around, representing another important step in moving away from Japan's postwar, anti-military ideals, especially if Aegis destroyers were sent," he points out, indicating that Japanese participation in a Persian Gulf war scenario could give Koizumi a chance to live up to his high-sounding rhetoric of being "always by America's side".

More opportunities to fill the prime minister's compassionate rhetoric with action might be in the offing these days given the fact that US efforts fighting global terrorism as well keeping militant Muslim fundamentalism and suspected sponsors of international terrorism in check could be taking place much closer to Japan's doorstep than far away Iraq. "As a country with far-reaching economic and political ties in Southeast Asia - including the world's largest Muslim country, Indonesia - Japanese diplomatic assistance may be very useful in preventing conflicts from spreading there. Japan is also an important player on the Korean peninsula, where Bush's axis of evil remark as well as the current administration's determination to confront terrorist regimes has heightened tensions. Japanese support will be needed to shore things up," Berger maintains.

For now, it seems Japan feels more comfortable sitting on the fence, closely observing the reactions of the international community to US plans to expand its military campaign, while thinking of a statesman-like line to drop in here and there.

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