Politics and peacekeeping in Japan

What next after surprise South Sudan withdrawal?

Kevin Placek

PHOTO: AP Photo / Justin Lynch

International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia

31 March 2017

Japan is facing growing pains in increasing its involvement in overseas conflict zones. Kevin Placek takes a look at what it will take for the country to contribute effectively to international peace and security.

Peacekeeping has long been a useful way for Japan to play an active role in the international system while also enhancing its security capabilities. The United Nations transitional authority in Cambodia in 1992 marked the first time since the end of the Second World War that Japanese troops were dispatched overseas. From Timor-Leste to Haiti, UN operations have provided vital, if constrained, international experience for Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (JSDF). So what to make of Japan’s recent decision to withdraw from the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan?

The decision, made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on 10 March, to withdraw 350 Ground Self-Defence Force troops effectively brings to an end Japan’s five-year involvement in the UN mission to consolidate peace and security in the world’s newest country. It also represents an unexpected pause in the government’s push to expand the role of the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) overseas.

When the Abe government revised security legislation in 2015 it allowed the JSDF to take on additional responsibilities, such as the protection of the local population and civilian peacekeeping personnel. But it wasn’t until November last year that these changes were applied to the UN mission in South Sudan. This marked the first time that Japanese troops could use force beyond exclusively self-defence purposes.

The JSDF in South Sudan are actually engineering troops, mostly building roads and other infrastructure projects. They were dispatched only to areas without armed conflict, based on the condition that the existing ceasefire between the government forces and rebels was maintained.

Although they haven’t been tasked with managing the security situation, the expanded mandate has still been controversial. A Japanese opinion poll at the time found 56 per cent of respondents opposed to the expanded mandate for the mission, with just 28 per cent in support.

In July last year, renewed fighting broke out between rival military forces in the capital Juba, leaving more than 300 dead, according to a UN report. JSDF troops recorded hearing gunshots in the area surrounding their camp in their daily activity logs. They also described incidents of “fighting” between the government and rebel forces.

Defence Minister Tomomi Inada later clarified that these were “armed clashes”, according to the government’s interpretation. “Fighting” would imply that the ceasefire upon which the deployment of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces was approved is not being upheld.

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The fact that this only came to light when records that the government claimed were discarded were later found has caused a political stir. The Ministry of Defence first received a disclosure request for the JSDF’s daily activity reports in October and announced in December that all records had been destroyed. In February, however, the ministry backtracked, announcing that digital copies had been found on computers within the Joint Staff Office.

It was later reported by NHK that copies of the data were also found on computers in the Ground Self-Defence Force section of the ministry but these were deleted after an information request was received. Ministry officials apparently decided not to report the finding because it would contradict earlier statements. Inada has requested an investigation into the matter but it doesn’t reflect well on her handling of the ministry.

If the decision to withdraw Japanese troops was based on the deteriorating situation in South Sudan, why wouldn’t the government simply say so?

South Sudan is the first case in which the JSDF have been able to exercise their expanded capabilities. A sudden decision to withdraw forces based on the local security environment would bring into question the necessity of the expanded security role for the JSDF. Politically, it might also make it difficult for the Abe government to approve future deployments. According to the Nikkei Shimbun, a new deployment to join the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus is already under consideration. Withdrawing from South Sudan now may actually make it easier to send Japan’s armed forces abroad later on.

The problem for the government is that despite the new security laws, the Self-Defence Forces are still quite limited in where they can go and what they can do. Building public support for a more active JSDF is a challenge. But without the necessary experience, Japanese troops will find it difficult to exercise those responsibilities.

Greater transparency and accountability would undoubtedly help maintain confidence in Japan’s peacekeeping efforts. But the larger question is whether the push to expand the JSDF’s role overseas has already started to outpace other more important hurdles—legal, operational and political—preventing Japan from contributing effectively to international peace and security.

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