Photo/IllutrationCritics gather outside the prime minister's office on Dec. 27 to protest the government's decision to dispatch Self-Defense Forces to the Middle East. (The Asahi Shimbun)

The government’s decision to dispatch Self-Defense Forces to the Middle East raises serious questions about the necessity and legal basis for doing so.

First and foremost, there was no substantive debate in the Diet about the planned deployment. Never in the history of overseas SDF activities has an order for a mission been made in such a rash and thoughtless manner.

The Abe administration on Dec. 27 formally decided to dispatch a Maritime SDF destroyer and patrol aircraft to the Middle East, a region fraught with tensions due to a deepening confrontation between the United States and Iran.

To avoid undermining Japan’s friendly relationship with Iran, the government decided to keep the Japanese mission independent of a U.S.-led international coalition to protect ships in the region.

But there is no doubt that the Abe administration resorted to this course of action out of consideration for Washington and never gave serious thought to other options.


The deployment will be based on Article 4 of the law that established the Defense Ministry and which stipulates “research and study” as one of the ministry’s tasks.

The administration says the mission is not about safeguarding Japan-related commercial vessels but gathering intelligence necessary to secure safe shipping. Such a deployment can be ordered at the discretion of the defense minister without requiring Diet approval.

But Article 4 of the law only lists the ministry’s tasks, and “research and study” has been interpreted to mean mainly peacetime vigilance and surveillance operations in areas surrounding Japan.

The government’s argument that this article can be invoked to authorize a long-term SDF mission in the Middle East, a highly volatile region far from Japan, is clearly based on a stretched interpretation.

The government also decided to allow the defense minister to order the MSDF vessel to engage in maritime patrol operations based on the SDF law if such action is deemed necessary to protect ships related to Japan.

The SDF would be allowed to use arms in certain limited situations during such an operation.

The government says there is no immediate need for SDF operations to safeguard ships. But concerns remain that the scope of SDF operations could be expanded with the restrictions gradually eroded.

Komeito, the junior partner of the Liberal Democratic Party in the ruling coalition, initially showed an unwillingness to support the deployment under the pretext of “research and study.”

The LDP proposed to formalize the action with Cabinet approval and limit the duration of the mission to one year with a possible extension that would require new Cabinet approval and a report to the Diet. Komeito readily supported the deployment under those conditions, but it is hard to believe that these measures will serve as effective restrictions on expansion of the mission.


In the postwar period, Japan stuck to the principle of a purely defensive security policy under war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. Any overseas SDF deployment is always a weighty issue.

In 1987, when Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone planned to send an MSDF minesweeper to remove mines in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, Chief Cabinet Secretary Masaharu Gotoda got Nakasone to change his mind by threatening to refuse to sign the Cabinet approval.

A turning point came in 1991, when the government sent an MSDF minesweeper to the Persian Gulf after the Gulf War. This deployment paved the way for more overseas SDF activities.

Each time, questions were raised with regard to a mission’s consistency with Article 9. But successive administrations have gradually expanded the scope of overseas SDF operations as they placed the top foreign policy priority on maintaining Japan’s close relations with the United States.

When the United States initiated war against Afghanistan in retaliation for the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Japan dispatched MSDF vessels to the Indian Ocean to refuel U.S. warships. After the Iraq War began in 2003, Japan deployed SDF personnel to what the government described as “non-combat zones” in Iraq to support the country’s rebuilding.

Special laws were enacted for these missions. While the decisions were made in a somewhat forcible manner, they were fiercely debated at the Diet before the public eye.

The way the Abe administration has applied an existing law by grossly stretching the interpretation of a provision is far more high-handed.

The government plans to ensure close intelligence-sharing between the SDF and the U.S. forces during the mission. The decision is apparently timed to keep the SDF’s operations in close coordination with those of the U.S.-led coalition as they go into full swing.

Despite the government’s assertion that the mission will be independent of any other nation’s activities, there is no ruling out the possibility that it could be seen as being integrated with the U.S. operations.

Last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained the SDF mission to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when he visited Japan and won his “understanding,” according to the government.

It remains unknown who was responsible for June attacks on two oil tankers in an area close to the Strait of Hormuz, including one operated by a Japanese company.

There are concerns that Tokyo’s move to deploy a military unit to the region could provoke the local population and unnecessarily create an enemy for Japan.

Observers point out that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces, is far from monolithic with a group of hard-liners wielding influence within the unit.


Another source of concern is the fact that it is hard to maintain a close watch on SDF operations in waters in the Middle East, far from Japan.

Lessons from the Ground SDF’s mission in South Sudan as part of U.N. peacekeeping operations should not be forgotten.

The GSDF unit had to withdraw from the country after the local security situation worsened. The country lapsed into a state of civil war after the GSDF deployment, but the Defense Ministry refused to admit the fact.

There was even an attempt to cover up the unit’s daily logs that described the deteriorating security situation. The incident cast serious doubt on the Defense Ministry’s ability to make flexible responses to rapidly changing circumstances.

The current state of tension in the region was caused, in the first place, by the Trump administration’s move last year to withdraw unilaterally from a multinational deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear development program.

It is vital that the Trump administration makes concessions.

As Japan imports most of the crude oil it consumes from the Middle East, it is incumbent on Tokyo to play a role in international efforts to ease tensions.

But the question is whether deploying an SDF unit constitutes the best way for Tokyo to contribute to the cause.

As an ally of the United States that also maintains friendly ties with Iran, Japan can act more effectively as an intermediary.

There is no military solution to this problem. Japan should focus on working with other countries involved in diplomatic efforts to prevent the situation in the Middle East from escalating into a full-fledged crisis.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 28