by Suvendrini Kakuchi
(IPS) TOKYO --
Japanese Diet is in the throes of legalizing a set of new defense guidelines that will enable the country's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to play a more active role in Asia.
The debate covers a revision of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, a set of bills proposed by Washington and accepted by the Japanese government in September 1997.
The updated version calls for the Japanese Self-Defense forces to provide more support to U.S. troops in the event of a threatening conflict "in waters surrounding Japan and its neighbors."
"If passed in the Diet, Japan is definitely heading toward the deployment of its soldiers in Asia under the United Nations peacekeeping forces as well as by providing U.S. troops with logistical support that includes search and rescue operations in the region," explained defense writer Naoki Usui.
emergence as a new active force in Asian security, despite being under the U.S. security umbrella, has upset Japan's Asian neighbors, notably China.
Ties with Beijing have sunk to a new low over Japan's pursuit of the guidelines, which China considers "interference" in its national territory.
China's objections lie in its perception that under the new guidelines, Japanese troops could be able to enter the Taiwan Straits and intervene in any conflict there.
But analysts point out that despite lingering fear among most Asian nations and outright anger expressed by some, Japan is nevertheless ready to enact the new legislation.
In fact, legal confirmation of the guidelines have become easier under Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's new administration, which has formed a powerful partnership with the conservative Liberal Party.
The Japanese media reports that prominent Liberal Democratic Party member Yukihiko Ikeda explained to Washington that Tokyo is now in a better position in the Diet to implement the new guidelines this month.
The focal question in the ongoing debate is the definition of the phrase "areas surrounding Japan."
China and other countries are apprehensive that it could be invoked to justify involvement by the Japanese -- whose role in military activities is a touchy issue given its wartime past -- upon the determination of the U.S. to intervene in the region.
The Japanese government, aware of the sensitivity of the issue, prefers to leave the wording as it is.
Tokyo says that the phrase covers a situational and not a geographical concept, but this explanation has only heightened the worries of pacifists in Japan and does nothing to dampen Asia's suspicion.
Pressed by the Opposition to specify areas covered by the security guidelines, Obuchi last month said it is "impossible" for the Self Defense Forces to take part in international operations linked to military conflicts that have occurred "in the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, or on the other side of the globe."
But in an illustration of the typical official fuzziness that surrounds the debate, Japanese officials smudged over Obuchi's explanation during discussions in the Diet and avoided making reference to the Middle East and other specific areas.
Obuchi is currently up against an Opposition demand that the government include in the new guidelines a bill that makes parliamentary approval a prerequisite to any deployment of Japanese soldiers to conflict areas abroad.
Opponents are also arguing against a bill that allows Japan's SDF to inspect foreign ships to ensure the effectiveness of economic sanctions mandated under the U.N. Security Council.
Despite the controversial debate in the Diet, analysts say the Japanese appears supportive of a more active role for the SDF, which could herald major change in Japan's defense strategy in the future.
Experts point out that North Korea's missile test over Japanese airspace in August 1998 changed public complacency over the Japan- US security pact.
The Defense Agency, amid a wave of public support based on what many saw as a "real" threat of a North Korean attack, launched a debate for emergency legislation. It argued that relying on existing security arrangements with the U.S were insufficient to protect Japan if attacked.
The Defense Agency has included in the emergency debate future themes that include the development of an armed SDF given a guerrilla attack on Japan's nuclear power plants, as well as a discussion on ballistic missile countermeasures.
This has led to wider debate about Japan's SDF and its role in the future.
SDF would represent a major, controversial change in policy. The 300,000-member SDF is not supposed to be a "military force" under Japan's post-war Constitution that bans it from having its own military.
Japan has no bombers, aircraft carriers or medium-and-long range missiles that would allow the SDF to project itself overseas.
Japan's Constitution was drafted in 1945 by U.S. occupation forces to restrain its military, given the country's earlier invasion of Asia. Called the "Emperor's Forces," then Japanese imperial army invaded China and colonized the Korean peninsula beginning in the early 1930s, and attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
"The situation created a Japanese public that began to regard the peace Constitution as the ultimate goodness and despised military power as ultimate evil. That's where Japan's tragedy lies," a senior defense official told the Japanese media.
But peace advocates say the tragedy lies in Japan's deliberate vagueness. They point out the government has chosen to interpret the SDF in various ways, despite the Constitution, thereby eroding the once-solid base that had accepted a smaller role for defense forces and successfully ignoring the need for public discussion.
Professor Tetsuo Maeda of Tokyo International University wants a stricter interpretation of the SDF to be put to the public, which would decide what Japan's defense policies should be.
Maeda says the government, in a bid to bridge the gap between the Constitution's ideals and growing pressure to beef up the SDF, has been hesitant to advocate drastic revision. Instead, it has opted to interpret the peace clause in ways and means to suit the LDP, Maeda adds.
"By resorting to such tactics to justify rearmament, the Japanese people cannot decide for themselves what they would want their country to be in the future," he added.
March 15, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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