TOKYO The commitment made by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the international community that the country’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) would join a planned multinational force in Iraq, has far-reaching implications globally.
According to analysts, Japan can now be expected to play a more active role in foreign policy.
“Japan has preferred to maintain a low profile in global politics following its disastrous defeat in World War ll. But now Koizumi is ushering in dramatic changes that spells uncertain times,” Rei Shiratori, head of the Institute of Political Studies in Japan, told IPS.
Koizumi last week said Japanese troops would join a United Nations-led multinational force in Iraq as long as their role is limited to humanitarian missions. He made the commitment at the end of the annual two-day gathering of leaders from the Group of Eight countries in the U.S. state of Georgia.
The United States failed to win a commitment from France, Germany and other G-8 members during the meeting for troops to serve in the international force in Iraq after the UN Security Council endorsed U.S. and British plans to hand power to an Iraqi government on June 30.
Shiratori said the Iraq crisis has forced Japan to reconsider its traditional post-war diplomacy that leaned heavily on monetary contributions to support the country’s global responsibilities.
“The Japanese are now realizing that financial contributions are not enough and Japan must be more active in a political and military sense,” he said.
Added Shiratori: “The consensus though is that rather than following the United States, the best way of doing this is supporting the United Nations efforts for peace.”
Since the end of the first Gulf War, Japan has slowly and discreetly sought more active participation in international peacekeeping efforts.
Japanese troops have been sent to Cambodia, East Timor, and most recently to the Indian Ocean, where the Maritime SDF provided the U.S. military with logistical support in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, Japan has also been routinely criticized for “checkbook diplomacy,” notably during the first Gulf War in 1991 when Tokyo failed to mobilize its troops.
Instead, Japan contributed $13 billion in aid during the conflict. But it received a lot of flak from Western countries that accused Tokyo of watching from the sidelines, while other nations did the dirty work in securing global stability.
Professor Yoko Iwama., at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, pointed out that Japan’s push for a more active foreign policy also stems from changing U.S. policy where Washington expects support from its close allies for future military operations beyond its borders after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The end of the Cold War has seen a slow shift in the strategic Japan-U.S. security pact,” Iwama told IPS.
“Now with U.S. President George Bush’s anti-terrorism policy, Japan is expected not only to provide bases for U.S. troops as before but to go beyond that by participating with the United States overseas,” he said.
“The future now depends on Japan’s skilled decision making,” stressed Iwama.
At present Japan has about 600 SDF based near the town of Samawah in southern Iraq the nation’s first troop deployment under its own flag instead of the UN’s.
But this particular involvement of the SDF in Iraq is different from previous Japanese peacekeeping missions, where the troops have always been in post-conflict and non-combat situations.
Now for the first time since its post-war history Japanese peacekeeping troops might have to use weapons for self-defense in a hostile environment.
But Japan’s constitution drafted with the United States after World War II, forbids Japanese troops from engaging in the act of combat unless the nation is under attack.
For that reason, early this week, the chief of the Cabinet Legislature Bureau told the Diet the SDF that joined a planned multinational force in Iraq will ignore orders from United Nations commanders that conflict with instructions from Tokyo.
“The SDF can join the multinational forces if the situation allows them to operate on their own judgment and discontinue operations under certain conditions,” Gen. Osamu Akiyama, the bureau head, told lawmakers.
But deployment of the SDF to Iraq still remains a hot topic in Japan, where critics view it as contravening Japan’s pacifist tradition.
“The Japanese constitution forbids dispatching troops to a country where fighting is going on,” said Yoko Kitazawa, who leads the Japan Network on Debt and Assistance, a non-governmental organization.
“Such a deployment is very unpopular among the public,” she told IPS.
Kitazawa is among more than a hundred civilians in Tokyo suing the government for causing them personal damage, in what they claim as an unconstitutional act.
“Using the SDF for peacekeeping (in post-conflict situations) has popular support,” she said.
“But a move to create peace, as is the objective in Iraq, is constitutionally wrong,” she pointed out.
In the meantime as Koizumi pushes for an active role in peacekeeping there are indications that Japan’s official development assistance (ODA) which features prominently in foreign policy will, now, play a less pivotal role.
Instead, it is set to become part of a mix of peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance that will form the cornerstones of Japan’s new active diplomacy.
Signs of this change are already apparent.
A long economic recession saw Japan slip from first to second place in the past three years, among the donor community. In 2004, Japan contributed $8 billion to developing countries, 10 percent less than the previous year.
At a recent press conference Sadako Ogata, the new head of the Japan International Cooperation Agency the technical lending arm of the ODA budget acknowledged that chances looked slim for the country to its expand its overseas aid program in the future.
“While I would like to see an increase in ODA, this looks difficult given domestic economic concerns,” she said. “The best approach is to make ODA more effective by targeting the poorest countries such as those in Africa.”