What Japan is doing in the Indian Ocean

By John Hemmings

Becoming normal at last?

Prime Minister Abe's loss of the Upper House of the Diet is set to have a profound effect on Japan's foreign policy aspirations. Ichiro Ozawa, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader, has promised to block of the Anti-terrorism Special Measures Law, which is coming up for renewal this November. The legislation, initially pushed through by Junichiro Koizumi in the wake of September 11, legalizes the deployments of Japan's Self Defence Forces to the Indian Ocean and Iraq. For the last ten years, Japan has been pushing its drive for 'normalisation' in two different directions: the first between Japan and the world, and the second, between Japan and its long-time ally, the US.

Many critics in Japan and in the region, see this normalisation as a drive towards militarization, but to Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) policy makers, as well as bureaucrats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Defence, Japan is merely taking its rightful place in the international community. Emphasizing humanitarian missions, the SDF has been deployed to Cambodia, East Timor and the Golan Heights in UN Peacekeeping missions. Furthermore, Japan has taken the lead in financially supporting the UN, while also pushing for a permanent seat on the Security Council (along with three other states). The deployments to the Indian Ocean and Iraq, however, are related more to how Japan and the US reconfigure their security relationship. On the one hand, Japan wants to play a more equal part in the relationship, on the other, it also wants to avoid being sucked into US foreign policy drives. It must play a careful balancing act between these two directions.

So what's Japan doing in the Indian Ocean?

US Navy Patrol

In the days following the September 11 Terrorist attacks, Japan moved swiftly behind the US, responding more quickly than many European allies. On September 19, the Anti-terrorism Special Measures Law was passed, authorizing the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force to be deployed beyond its Constitutionally restricted mandate. Rather than just playing a defensive role, it became an auxillary force to US and allied naval vessels in the Maritime Interdiction Operation (MIO) who were checking ships for smuggled arms, drugs, and money intended for the Taliban. The five vessels, the Towada, the Hamana, the Tokiwa, the Mashu, and the Oumi (each with escorts) have been dispatched at various times to supply fuel and drinking water to allied navies, particularly those un-eqipped for blue water operations, like the Pakistani navy. They have so far supplied around 450,000 kiloliters of fuel and 3,400 tons of water. These supply vessels also bring out goods and equipment, help with search and rescue operations, and supply foodstuffs to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, when requested.

Viva la difference

In 1991, Japan contributed an estimated $5 billion for the effort to free Kuwait from Iraq. There was criticism from within Japan, from the US and from the international community at large that Japan wasn't pulling its weight. In its long thank you message to the international community, somehow Kuwait forgot to mention Japan and the effect had a profound effect on domestic opinion in Tokyo. Some argued that Japan's Constitution put it in that position, others argued that as the second largest economy in the world, Japan had to join the rest of the world and develop and amend its Constitution, carefully of course. What a difference then, to see Afghan President Karzai thanking Japan (along with Canada, the UK, and Germany) for helping with the rebuilding of Afghanistan during his September 2004 speech at the UN General Assembly. In a seperate - but perhaps more telling - incident of international gratitude, a Japanese MSDF vessel called into a French port in July 2005 to refuel and was refueled withouth charge.

Onward Japan

Japan has come a long way since 1994, when war seemed imminent between the US and North Korea, and Japan was so restrained by its Constitution that it positively seemed to invite agression. This does not mean that it has accomplished its two goals of a greater international profile and a more equal relationship with the US. If Ozawa does take this step, of using the Indian Ocean mission to further his own political goal of wrestling power from the LDP, it will be a blow for Japan on both of these levels. Not a terrible blow, but a blow nevertheless. Japan will lose credibility with the US and the other states that are involved in the MIO. Japanese pundits have been watching Prime Minister Gordon Brown's handling of the US relationship to see how he handles the distancing that is necessary. What they may have missed is that while Brown distances himself from the administration, he upholds the commitments that Britain willingly gave. So Japan should uphold its commitments, volunteered in a time of crisis for its allies. The message to Ozawa should be simple, if you want to be invited back to the table, best not to leave the other players in a lurch. Since Ozawa was known to be pro-normalization after 1991, it is likely that this is merely political manoevering, and he will return Japan to the fold within six months or so. But at what costs to Japan's credibility and long term interests?

John Hemmings is a Research Associate for the Asian Programme in the International Security Studies Department at RUSI. He lived in Japan for 6 years, and is currently writing a paper on the Japanese-US Security Alliance.

The views of the author are not meant to represent the views of the RUSI.

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