Dispatch of MSDF Vessels Historic, But Only First Step,

November 26th, 2001


Dispatch of MSDF Vessels Historic, But Only First Step,


Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels are–at long last–operating in the Indian Ocean, each flying the Japanese naval flag, the Rising Sun.

Once accomplished, the dispatch of the MSDF ships has proved quite an easy thing to do, although there still are inconsequential arguments lingering against the wisdom of allowing an Aegis-equipped vessel to be included among the ships.

Japan’s go-ahead for this action has been rated highly by Pakistan, to say nothing of the United States.

At the ASEAN-plus-three summit, held on Nov. 5 in Brunei, there was no voice of objection at all to this action of Japan from any of the 10 ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members or from China or South Korea.

It took fantastically a long period of time, long enough to be chronicled at great length, to see this simple thing materialize.

Looking back, I cannot help but feel chagrined at this country for having missed one opportunity after another to send SDF troops abroad in the decades after World War II.

Japan failed to act in Cold War

The first example to occur to me dates back to the early 1980s, in the midst of the Cold War.

In those days, the U.S. Seventh Fleet, deployed in the western Pacific, had its hands full coping with the Soviet Union’s incessant augmentation of its naval and air capabilities in the Far East.

At the same time a number of crises in the Persian Gulf region made it inevitable for the United States to reinforce the deployment of its carrier task forces in the Indian Ocean even though they were short-handed in the Pacific. It also became necessary for the United States to ensure the security of Indian Ocean sea-lanes when the Soviet Navy was deployed in the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in southern Vietnam.

The mission of sea route defense in the Indian Ocean was reportedly a grueling task for U.S. Navy personnel. They had to concentrate on tense but monotonous surveillance duties day after day under the scorching equatorial sun.

Almost all of the vessels that the U.S. personnel protected on this mission were oil tankers conveying crude oil to Japan from the Gulf.

Understandably, the U.S. side became irritated by the circumstances.

Officials at various levels of the U.S. government were quoted many times as denouncing Japan’s inaction and lack of readiness as an ally to extend a helping hand to the U.S. forces.

What would have happened if the Japanese government at the time had summoned the resolve to join hands with the Seventh Fleet in the cause of protecting the sea-lanes stretching from the Gulf to the East Asian region?

All the countries of Southeast Asia would have been fully in favor of the Japanese decision because the Soviet naval base on Cam Ranh Bay exposed Southeast Asian nations directly to the Soviet menace for the first time in history.

China, for that matter, also would certainly have thrown its support behind the Japanese decision. At the time China, too, was under impending threat from the Soviet Union, with which it shared a long stretch of border. Beijing, in the hope of heading off the Soviet threat, urged Tokyo to conclude a Sino-Japanese peace treaty with a provision precluding Soviet attempts at Asian regional hegemony. China even reportedly wanted to see Japan beef up its defense budget to 3 percent of the gross national product. It was a time when China actually coveted strengthened Japan-U.S military cooperation to hold Soviet expansionism in check.

‘Japan menace’ a fiction

Noteworthy in this connection is that in the mid- and late 1970s, as a natural result of the lapse of one generation after the end of a war, “Asian neighbors’ anxiety over Japan’s rearmament” had ceased to be an issue, disappearing from public debate in Japan and the rest of Asia, and in the United States and Europe as well.

It was in the mid-1980s that this pseudo-issue, divorced from reality, was deliberately reintroduced by leftists in Japan, presumably as their last resort after being foiled in their antigovernment, socialist movements in the 1960s and 1970s.

The barrage of questions they asked Japan’s Asian neighbors might go something like this: “Don’t you feel afraid of a resurgence of Japan’s militarism? You’re understandably concerned about Japan’s rearmament moves, aren’t you?”

The Japanese leftists then adroitly availed themselves of every opportunity to give the responses from some in Asian countries big play in the Japanese media and make it a domestic political issue, subsequently engineering a plot to have the “problem” fed back overseas, thus endowing it with international proportions. It was a pseudo-issue, unparalled in world history, a product peculiar to the leftist-pacifist mood of Japan after the end of World War II.

In 1988, when I completed my service as Japan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia and was appointed ambassador to Thailand, I made a trip to Washington for meetings with old American friends of mine, including Richard Armitage, currently a deputy secretary of state.

At that time I came across a U.S. government document, which read in part that Japan’s defense capability buildup would be carried out “while paying due attention to reactions from its Asian neighbors.”

Surprised at the wording, I asked U.S. friends, “What on earth do these words mean?”

Looking puzzled, they made an inquiry, and the reply was that the expression in question was nothing other than a quotation from “what the Japanese government has said.”

There is no doubt, however, that this pseudo-issue was nonexistent at least during the first half of the 1980s in Japan, any other Asian nations or the United States.

How would things have gone if Japan at that time had dared to take charge of defending the Gulf-East Asia sea-lanes, to the extent of the mission being internationally recognized as a routine Japanese operation?

First of all, all the states along the sea-lanes would have acknowledged that Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force was one of the world’s leading navies in terms of equipment, efficiency and troop morals. In any port at which they called, MSDF members would have impressed the local people with their gentlemanly conduct, free from even a tint of the rudeness often associated with the term “sailor.”

U.S. the most reliable country

More significantly, these states would have been thoroughly convinced that there was no possibility at all of Japan again attacking Singapore, Indonesia or anywhere else, a thing that Japanese, and any foreign observers who know the reality of Japan after the war, take as self-evident.

Buttressing such positive convictions would be the certainty that Japan would take its action within the bounds of the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Admitting that the United States can make mistakes at times and that it is subject to antipathy from overseas because of its status as the world’s most dominant country, it still is the nation deemed most reliable among all the countries of the world.

Underlying its reliability is the hard historical fact that the United States, a country championing freedom and democracy, has never had even a fragment of territorial ambition throughout the two world wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War or the Gulf War, in spite of the massive numbers of troops it deployed in each of these armed conflicts.

Despite their ideological differences, even the Soviet Union, China and North Korea placed the highest confidence in the United States in those days. It follows that Japan, should it have acted in close policy coordination with the United States, would have earned widespread trust from overseas. Furthermore, the image of Japan as a reliable new player in global diplomacy would have taken root around the world.

To put it in other words, Japan’s diplomacy would have won international respect simply by asserting its preparedness to face risks in the exercise of military might for the cause of peace, while leaving no room for suspicion about Japan’s purity of motivation, range of activities, or depth of goodwill.

Yet, for five decades after the war, Japan repeatedly failed to capture such opportunities to restore its diplomatic power.

More must be done

Although the country has narrowly managed to finally grasp its latest chance, what the government has planned can hardly be called sufficient.

The steps Japan has adopted this time can be likened to those of a habitually failing student who manages to squeak by at last by scrapping together anything to bolster his grade–right down to his record of attendance at school–even though his exam paper itself still falls far short of the qualifying score.

Others may lavishly praise upon the student for his effort to mend his ways, but he must be aware that such praise cannot be hoped for more than once. The student will have to live up to the expectation that he study just as hard as his classmates from now on.

The president of Pakistan, for that matter, already has made a comment to the effect that the refusal of Japanese troops to enter battlefields seems to fly in the face of internationally accepted common sense.

All problems involved boil down to the question of whether or not to exercise Japan’s right to collective self-defense.

Suppose that a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet encounters a civilian vessel being assaulted by pirates or terrorists while sailing on the high seas or through an internationalized strait.

Should it be a ship of Japanese nationality, the SDF could defend it even under the current government interpretation of the nation’s Constitution, excercising “the right of individual self-defense.”

It should be taken into account, however, that the crew of a Japanese-flagged ship may all be foreigners, such as Filipinos, while many Japanese-owned ships are of Panamanian or Liberian registries for reasons of expediency. Nobody can afford the time to confirm such details in the event of an emergency.

Acting by common sense

Above all, a question of essential importance must be asked: “In light of common sense and respect for human life, is it logical for the SDF to help Japanese ships that are under armed attack while turning its back on foreign ships in similar peril, simply to avoid the exercise of the right to collective defense?”

The twisted assertion that Japan has the right to collective self-defense but nevertheless lacks the right to exercise the right is nothing but a product of Japan’s intellectual decadence in the postwar period.

The government, in order to rectify this situation, does not have to go to the trouble of altering its interpretation of the Constitution, much less of revising the Constitution itself.

All Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi should do is to bring common sense–his political motto–into play, honestly admitting the absurdity of replies to questions about the right to collective self-defense by successive government leaders in the Diet on the matter, by saying the past replies were mistaken.