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Reviewing guidelines to expand SDF role essential

Publication Date : 17-01-2013


An expansion of the role of the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) will be put on the agenda for Japan-US consultations to review the guidelines on cooperation between the SDF and the US military, because such an expansion is viewed as necessary to coordinate bilateral actions, an urgent issue for both countries.

At the bilateral consultations to review the Japan-US Defence Cooperation Guidelines, set to start today, the two governments will discuss possible bilateral cooperation after the government reviews its interpretation of the Constitution in regard to the right to collective self-defence, which will enable the SDF to expand its role further.

Among four scenarios related to the right to collective self-defence, which was discussed by an expert panel under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's first Cabinet, which lasted from September 2006 to August 2007, two are regarded as problematic for bilateral actions by the SDF and the US military.

One is how the SDF should respond if US military ships are attacked on the high seas while sailing near SDF ships, and the other is how to respond if Japan's radar system identifies a ballistic missile that is believed to be aimed at the United States.

Some observers point out that under the current interpretation of the Constitution, the only scenario under which the SDF could defend US military ships on the high seas is if vessels of the two nations were sailing abreast in tight formation and US ships came under attack. In such a scenario, the SDF's defence of US ships would not constitute an exercise of the right to collective self-defence because it would be difficult to know which country's ships were being targeted by the attack.

However, in modern war, military ships almost never sail abreast while on manoeuvers; when ships from two countries engage in bilateral actions, there is a significant distance between them in most cases.

For this reason, it is difficult for the SDF to defend US military ships unless the government changes its interpretation of the Constitution to enable the SDF to exercise the right to collective self-defence.

Meanwhile, due to China's recent maritime activities and North Korea's launch of long-range ballistic missiles, it has become necessary to take actions to ensure the safety of sea lanes, strengthen missile defence, and bolster the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is aimed at stopping trafficking of weapons of mass destruction.

Under such circumstances, the range of joint actions between the SDF and the US military has been expanding from that assumed in 1997, when the current guidelines were compiled, to include coordinated responses to new threats and scenarios, some of which may not constitute official contingencies in Japan or areas surrounding it.

Also, it is possible that incidents requiring such measures could occur simultaneously. In such a case, the US military cannot be expected to deal with such incidents unilaterally.

Concerning the ballistic missile defence system, "The United States offers Japan information on the launch of such missiles and other relevant information. Despite this, if Japan said it could not intercept ballistic missiles aimed at the United States, the Japan-US alliance would be in danger," a senior official at the Defence Ministry said.

In the 1997 revision of the guidelines, which were first drawn up in 1978, the concept of contingencies in areas surrounding Japan was added, as it only pertained to emergency situations affecting Japan.

However, the law governing SDF operations to assist US military forces during emergencies in areas surrounding Japan, which was enacted in 1999, limits the SDF's refuelling activities for the US military to rear areas and does not allow them to supply the US military with weapons and ammunition.

As the current government's interpretation of the Constitution in regard to the right to collective self-defence puts so many limitations on SDF activities, the United States is considerably dissatisfied. Given the current security climate surrounding the nation, how to make concrete revisions to the guidelines in the upcoming bilateral consultations will be a focal issue.


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