Boosting Japan’s Proactive Contributions to Peace

Jeffrey W. Hornung
October 27, 2015

Note: This article is the second of two parts. Read Part One, which discusses Japan’s current contributions to peace, here.

Since Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to office in 2012, he has been advocating that Japan become a “proactive contributor to peace.” Similar to the “Normal Japan” argument that became part of the discourse in the 1990s, “Proactive Contributor to Peace” has become the narrative of Mr. Abe’s Japan. Are Japan’s international contributions today, however, qualitatively different than they were during prior administrations? After all, when one looks at the major security challenges that the international community has been confronting during Prime Minister Abe’s tenure—ISIS, Syrian refugees, Ebola—Japan’s primary response has been financial assistance. With new security legislation in place and a premier more willing to advocate Japan’s contributions on the world stage, Prime Minister Abe has laid a foundation for greater use of manpower and normative leadership. Below are a number of opportunities to be more proactive, both immediately and once the recently passed security legislation is operationalized and personnel are trained under the new rules. Importantly, these are all areas on which Japan can cooperate with the United States, thereby fulfilling a dual purpose of strengthening alliance relations.

Become a leader in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) and medical emergencies. Japan has a track record of providing manpower in human welfare situations, largely in Asia, but Prime Minister Abe should strive to make Japan the gold standard for how advanced, civilian powers respond globally. In addition to providing emergency relief goods and aid, he could deploy the Self-Defense Forces (SDF)—which has logistic capabilities and experience in medical assistance, humanitarian assistance, and reconstruction—as well as inter-disciplinary, civilian Japan Disaster Relief teams with expertise in search and rescue/recovery and medical support. Together, these resources could position Japan as a civilian power that responds quickly to emergencies worldwide, particularly after the SDF begins flying its new, long-range C-2 transport plane. Given that these missions are purely non-combat, they should encounter no legal troubles.

More actively support capacity building of Southeast Asia’s maritime entities. Over the past decade, Japan has engaged in capacity building programs for many Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members. These efforts include donating three patrol boats to Indonesia, transferring high-tech equipment to the Philippines, and assisting various coast guard training programs. The Abe administration has also pledged to donate six used, non-military vessels to Vietnam, modified for patrol tasks, and agreed to supply a fleet of ten new patrol vessels to the Philippines. With the relaxed weapons export rules and revisions in Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) Charter, Prime Minister Abe should expand the menu of options for capacity building in the South China Sea. One possibility is to transfer used Japan Coast Guard (JCG) and Maritime-SDF (MSDF) equipment and technology to friendly states, such as Singapore or Indonesia. This move should go beyond patrol boats to include aircraft and support ships. Another possibility is to construct training, maintenance, and support facilities, and send JCG and MSDF officers to these countries to handle training and maintenance responsibilities for any vessel or aircraft that Japan provides.

Construct a new paradigm for assisting people from developing nations. Prime Minister Abe said in a September 2015 CNN op-ed, “Over the last 60 years, Japan has been a partner for developing countries, extending much-needed assistance to develop human resources and infrastructure while also respecting and understanding their specific needs.” Undoubtedly Japan’s assistance has been crucial for many countries. However, it is time for Japan to go further. Not all people from the developing world benefit from assistance. For a host of reasons, many people from both conflict and non-conflict zones choose to flee their countries and seek refugee status in more advanced, stable democracies. It is time for Japan to follow its Western counterparts, and lead its Asian counterparts, by proactively increasing the number of refugees it accepts. With the Ministry of Justice having recently eased its criteria for recognizing refugees, the Prime Minister needs to show the world Japan’s willingness to be a leader in ameliorating this human challenge. After all, it was Prime Minister Abe who said, in the same CNN op-ed, that the refugee situation “…is a serious humanitarian crisis that underscores the need for greater international cooperation. Japan stands firm with host communities of refugees and we will do our best to tackle this challenge.”

Make Japan a normative leader. Japanese normative leadership at an international level is relatively scarce. Yet, more than any other Japanese leader before him, Prime Minister Abe has attempted to demonstrate international leadership. His National Security Strategy states, “Japan must have the power to take the lead in setting the international agenda…without being confined to a reactive position to events and incidents after they have already occurred.” Nothing sums up this thinking better than his administration’s promotion of the rule of law. In his May 2014 speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, he said, “Japan for the rule of law, Asia for the rule of law, and the rule of law for all of us.” Japan needs to participate in international rule-making from the planning stages and provide more human capital to international judicial institutions. Functionally, there is an opportunity to lead efforts regarding cyberspace, outer space, and the maritime realm. The latter offers the best opportunity, given the Prime Minister’s repeated emphasis on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Whether bilaterally or multilaterally, the Abe administration has been a leading advocate for its interpretation (as well as America’s) of UNCLOS. Given his continued emphasis on rule of law, Prime Minister Abe is perfectly poised to ramp up his promotion of UNCLOS in all relevant organizations as well as in bilateral relationships. As part of this initiative, he should exercise Japan’s right to conduct freedom of navigation operations in international waters by deploying Japanese ships and aircraft on routine patrols and surveillance missions to the South China Sea alongside the U.S.

Increase deployments of Self-Defense Forces on non-combat missions overseas. To date, including its current engagement in the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan, Japan has participated in a total of thirteen UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs), five international humanitarian relief operations, and nine international election observation operations. With new legislation enabling Japan to participate in a wider range of UN PKOs, it behooves Prime Minister Abe to utilize the SDF as contributors to peace. Currently, there are sixteen UN PKO missions. Of these, seven involve monitoring ceasefires or demilitarizing. These are still tricky for Japan, given that they could involve combat if a ceasefire breaks down. However, the remaining nine include protecting civilians and human rights workers, assisting security sector reform, promoting human rights, and helping political processes of weak states. Legally, there should not be any challenges preventing Prime Minister Abe from increasing SDF participation in these missions, up to the legal limit under Japanese law. What is needed, however, is not more light infantry engaging in infrastructure and transportation services. Rather, these PKOs could benefit tremendously from higher-end support, such as logistics, and manpower in new roles, such as force commanders for peacekeeping missions and staff officers at more positions in UN PKO headquarters. Japan could also play a role in re-establishing defense organizations or assisting security sector reforms in weak states.

Consider ways the SDF can support activities that threaten international peace and security. The recently passed security legislation makes it legal for the SDF to conduct operations that support global peace and security. Although not specified, terrorism is a good example of a threat to international peace and security, including Japan’s. Prime Minister Abe has indicated his solidarity with countries fighting terrorism. Yet, Japan needs to assume a greater role in anti-terrorism operations with allied countries. This role does not have to include combat or airstrikes. Instead, the time is ripe for Japan to provide combat service support, for example to the coalition fighting ISIS forces. Arguably, this idea is far from the discourse heard in the Diet during the security legislation deliberations and probably not envisioned as falling under Japan’s constitutional revisions. Yet, similar to Japan’s refueling mission to help coalition forces flying sorties in Afghanistan, there is no reason why the SDF cannot do the same for coalition warplanes targeting ISIS fighters, if refueling takes place in areas where there is no combat. It would, presumably, become easier if the operation were to fall under a future UN resolution.

With the exception of refugees, all of the issues above are considered common areas for cooperation in the April 2015 U.S.-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation. The Guidelines enable the alliance to make greater, and more effective, cooperative contributions to international security initiatives that include peacekeeping operations, HA/DR, maritime security, capacity building, and logistic support. As such, the indirect aim of cooperative efforts in these areas is to strengthen alliance ties. And there are plenty of opportunities.

• For UN PKOs, the U.S. has consistently been under pressure—and international criticism—to provide more of everything—personnel, materials, and leadership. Given Japan’s civilian power identity, it makes sense that Japan should share greater responsibilities in all of this, thereby freeing the U.S. to focus on areas that demand attention in ways Japan cannot legally help or allowing Japan to develop stronger ties with other U.S. allies engaged in PKOs. This will be particularly true once the new security legislation is operationalized, thereby enabling the SDF to protect UN and other personnel participating in the same UN missions.
• In maritime security, because the U.S. is not a signatory to UNCLOS, its calls for abiding by the convention are often criticized as hypocrisy. As a signatory, Japan has the moral authority to advocate regional support of its interpretation, which is also Washington’s interpretation, as a counter to China’s. Furthermore, if Japan and the U.S. were to conduct South China Sea freedom of navigation operations, Tokyo and Washington could cover a wider area, thereby enhancing maritime domain awareness and relieving some of the burden on the U.S. Navy. Such operations also demonstrate Japan’s willingness to back up its normative leadership with action.
• In HA/DR, Japan and the U.S. have shown how effective their combined efforts are in operations following the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines. There is unlimited potential for the allies in this area, such as greater joint relief efforts, greater information sharing to reduce redundancies in relief assistance, mutual logistic support and operational coordination and planning, and collaboration to establish an emergency information transmission system in Southeast Asia.
• Southeast Asia is home to disputes over territory and maritime boundaries between China and a number of Southeast Asian states. While the U.S. has a direct interest in these issues due to the existence of two regional allies—the Philippines and Thailand—the U.S. and Japan share an interest in maintaining freedom of navigation, stable sea lanes of communication, and peaceful resolution of disputes based on the amount of international commercial shipping transiting the region. As such, Japan and the U.S. have a mutual interest in capacity building of maritime enforcement entities. The allies could coordinate their separate assistance programs to cast as wide a net as possible across all states challenged by China. Such coordination would ensure a broader distribution of coastal patrol vessels and maintenance and training facilities, increased training for maritime law enforcement officials, and better information sharing among national agencies charged with maritime security and maritime law enforcement.
• The U.S. is pursuing a number of tracks in the fight against ISIS. This includes training rebel fighters and equipping them with military equipment, small arms, ammunition, and non-lethal military gear; building the capacity of the Iraqi government to prepare its forces to fight ISIS and regain territory; and leading a small coalition of Western and Arab states in an aerial campaign against ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq. Understandably, it is extremely difficult for Japan to participate legally in the first two tracks. However, the third track offers Japan an opportunity to cooperate with the U.S. Building on Japan’s logistical support of coalition forces flying sorties in Afghanistan, the coalition could benefit from Japanese refueling support. Possible deployment locations include sending Air-SDF (ASDF) units to Incirlik and Diyabakir air bases in Turkey, MSDF Mashuu-class refueling ships to the Persian Gulf, or ASDF KC-767s to conduct inflight refueling in non-combat airspace. Another possibility would be dispatching E-767 AWACs for early warning and control, perhaps in friendly airspace, like Turkey. Finally, but perhaps less possible, would be dispatching C-130H cargo planes to support humanitarian efforts for refugees in northern Iraq. The coalition forces have already utilized cargo planes to air-drop meals and drinking water to Yazidi refugees. Understandably, however, this may cause legal problems for Japan, as it would likely require fighter jets to protect them from surface-to-air threats. The bottom line is non-combat, logistical service support activities are possible. All of these would help the coalition.

In sum, Japan already provides crucial support to the Asia-Pacific region and the world through financial aid and in-kind assistance. Prime Minister Abe, however, has sought a new paradigm for his country by making Japan less a security consumer and more a security provider, which he calls proactive contributions to peace. This is vital, as the challenges facing the world are so complex and far-reaching. The countries tackling these challenges would benefit tremendously from Japan’s engagement, beyond financial and in-kind assistance. The recommendations above are a few ideas on where and how Japan can stake out new territory, including many once the necessary statutes are written and training is complete. Importantly, they all represent means by which the U.S. and Japan can cooperate to address both regional and global security challenges. None is easy; importantly, they are doable in today’s Japan.

Read the first part of this series, which discusses Japan’s current contributions to peace, here.

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