by Suvendrini Kauchi
(IPS) TOKYO -- Despite public unease and questions of legitimacy under Japan's constitution, the Japanese cabinet agreed on Dec. 9 the country's troops will stay in Iraq for another year.
This comes as Japan puts the final touches on a sweeping overhaul of its defense policy that will give its armed forces a greater role globally and could upset neighbors like China and North Korea.
The cabinet endorsed the extension of the deployment of up to 600 Self-Defense Force (SDF) troops in Iraq after the ruling coalition -- the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito -- gave their approval earlier in the day. The current mission expires next Tuesday.
"I have concluded that it is appropriate to extend the deployment for one year, as the next year will be an important one for Iraq," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said in a news conference after the cabinet approval, citing Iraq's election scheduled for late January and the expected completion of the multinational forces' mission in December next year.
With the SDFs for Iraq already decided, the Japanese government in the next few days will be deliberating on how to extend the global reach of its military
The National Defense Program Outline is a five-year defense program that is set to address new threats like terrorism and missile attacks and is likely to shift from Japan's purely defensive security policy.
Akihiko Tanaka, a member of the panel that developed the new defense policy, said that Japan must be capable to not only respond to "threats from other nation-states" but also to act in "various circumstances...evolving into a multifunctional and flexible defense force facing the current complicated security environment."
Tanaka, who reaches at national Tokyo University, explained that the policy report supports an expanded role for the SDF, changing the current peace constitution that now prohibits Japan's involvement in conflicts overseas, and working more closely with allies, such as the U.S.-led war against terrorism.
The defense program outline also promotes the export of arms to the United States and plans to do away with the current import ban that restricts military weapons development.
That scenario, say experts, paints a scary picture of a military strong Japan that can flex its muscles alongside the United States, the strongest military power in the world.
"Japan is clearly moving towards working closely with the United States in global conflicts -- a situation that greatly endangers the security of the Japanese," said Hiromichi Umebayahsi, founder of Peace Depot, a leading peace group.
He told IPS that surveys indicate more than 60 percent of Japanese people are opposed to Japan getting embroiled in the Iraq war, despite the recent clamours among die-hard conservatives who want to promote an overseas role for Japanese troops as a means of restoring past military glory.
Yuikyo Ota from the Hirakata city-based Non-defended Peace Regulation Movement, in Osaka prefecture, is lobbying hard to stop Japan from entering another war since its crushing defeat in WWII.
"There is clearly a move to re-arm Japan by the current government that is supporting the U.S. military invasion of Iraq. We must stop this," he told IPS.
Human rights lawyer, Takeo Matsumoto, said many Japanese people were deeply resentful of the government policy to throw its weight behind Washington and support the war in Iraq.
"The heaviest toll from war is among ordinary defenseless citizens. Japan has been a victim of war in the past and people do not want to repeat that horrible experience at home or anywhere else in the world," he said.
Article Nine of the Japanese constitution outlaws aggression and denies Japan from having any military forces at all. But recent proposals for changing the constitution by a panel inside the ruling Liberal Democrat Party even embrace the notion of "collective defense" -- meaning that the future role of the Japanese military wouldn't be confined just to defending the homeland but could also encompass combat at the side of allies in far- off theatres.
On Dec. 3 'The Yomiuri Shimbun' daily reported that Japan was studying developing its first long-range surface-to-surface missile.
'Yomiuri' which quoted anonymous defense officials said Japan's concerns were North Korean spy vessels and Chinese navy ships that have been moving more frequently in seas near Japan. North Korea shocked Tokyo when it test fired a ballistic missile that passed over Japan in 1998.
But China is worried that should Japan develop its own missile defense system, technology could be shared with its arc-rival Taiwan.
Peace Depot's Umebayashi paints a grim picture.
"Japan is on the way of building one the most sophisticated militaries in the world. Soon it will have a first-strike capability, and that's deeply disturbing," he said.
The new mandate of Japan's SDF in Iraq will last until Dec. 14, 2005. To appease critics, it specifically mentions that Japanese troops may be pulled out if security deteriorates.
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