Japan and the Maritime Interdiction Operation: Back in Business

On 11 January, Japan’s parliament enacted a law to resume refuelling operations in support of foreign vessels participating in anti-terrorism operations near Afghanistan. To some, the decision represents a long-term shift away from Japan’s pacifist foreign policy.

On 11 January, Japan’s parliament enacted a law to resume refueling operations in support of foreign vessels participating in anti-terrorism operations near Afghanistan. To some, the decision represents a long-term shift away from Japan’s pacifist foreign policy.

By John Hemmings

The six-year operation had been halted in early November 2007 by opposition lawmakers, and Prime Minister Fukuda had to resort to a rarely used overriding power to bring the bill to a second vote in the lower house. Within three days, Fukuda’s Cabinet had met to discuss an implementation plan; shortly thereafter Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba issued the order for Japanese warships to begin the three week trip to the Indian Ocean. There, they will provide fuel and drinking water to international vessels participating in the Maritime Interdiction Operation (MIO).

Involving the navies of eleven countries, the MIO is part of the international community’s attempt to interdict the transfer of men, weapons, narcotics and funds to anti-OEF forces in Afghanistan. Under the pro-US Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Japan dispatched martime forces to the US-led effort immediately after 9/11, legalising their role in the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures in October. Renewed annually, the Special Measures Law allowed for Japanese vessels to play a supply and logistical role to the vessels involved in the MIO. When the US-led war in Iraq began in 2003, Japan’s efforts were tainted by that conflict.

In an unexpected election fought on domestic isssues this summer, the governing Liberal Democrat Party (LDP), was swept from the upper house by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Although the LDP retains the more powerful lower house, its loss of the upper house means that it can no longer expect to pass legislation without a fight. Until this month, Fukuda has been treading carefully, trying to restore the credibility of the LDP with the voters. As one of the original architects of the legislation under Koizumi, Fukuda’s commitment to renewing the legislation has never wavered. Indeed, Fukuda’s soft-spoken calmness belies his resolve on the issue.

The strength of Fukuda’s support for the bill is surprising, given that he is known for his pan-Asian views. Japanese politicians have traditionally looked to the US as Japan’s main security and economic partner, but over the last two decades a clique of pan-Asianists has evolved in Tokyo, favouring stronger links with China and South Korea. Fukuda was Chief Cabinet Secretary under Koizumi, one of Japan’s most pro-American prime ministers and it was during this period that pan-Asianists realised that their vision was not universally shared with Japan’s neighbours. North Korean missile tests and abductions revealed Japanese vulnerability in the face of mainland agression and while China offered little help, the US immediately lent military support and co-operation through the ballistic missile defence system. Chinese nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment peaked in 2005, and relations have improved steadily since. Despite this, Japanese policy-makers now regard the US security alliance as all-important.

Despite this, there is still very little sense of long-term strategic vision in Tokyo, which is lamentable given Koizumi’s supposed impact on Japanese politics. The ease with which the opposition seized upon the MIO issue to bludgeon the government is a strong sign of public unease over the direction that Koizumi had pushed policy. Abe’s emphasis on a resurgent Japan, with all its overtones of revived nationalism finished him off just as neatly as all the scandals that his cabinet suffered in its brief year in office. Unfortunately, Abe’s defeat did not herald a new policy direction, but rather a stalemate as its architect Ozawa was unable to capitalise on his gains in the Upper House. He also underestimated Fukuda’s willpower and position within the LDP. And finally, he underestimated Fukuda’s ability to capitalise on the improved regional situation.

Fukuda has been able to improve relations with both China and South Korea. His promise not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, the controversial Tokyo shrine commemorating Japan’s war dead, was partly responsible for this. He was welcome in Beijing for a recent summit which brought not only warmer diplomatic ties, but also the promise of a solution to the long-running gas fields dispute in the East China Sea. He is also set to visit Lee Myung-bak, the new President of South Korea on 25 February, and there is much talk of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ between the two capitals, a notable difference from President Roh’s talk of a ‘diplomatic war’ with Tokyo. Fukuda could shore up his domestic position further by restarting talks on a Free Trade Agreement with South Korea, which faltered under Roh. The G8 Summit takes place this summer in Hokkaido, Japan, and should give Fukuda even more opportunities to be seen as a world statesman. Should his popularity rise, it is highly likely that he will dissolve the Japanese Diet and call a general election. With a strong public mandate, the LDP could then set about pushing through a permanent law, giving a blanket authorisation to future missions abroad in support of peacekeeping missions and in support of Washington’s efforts against terrorism.

Naturally, Koizumi’s decision to back the US after 11 September was the act of a strong ally, but it was also an opportunity to revise Japan’s post-war status quo. Although the Japanese refuelling effort may seem unexciting to outside observers, it represents the thin end of the wedge to domestic opponents to a long-term shift away from Japan’s pacifist foreign policy and is extremely contentious. For the Japanese Ministry of Defence (MoD), the advantages in taking part in the MIO are clear. As well as gaining experience abroad, the Japanese MoD also gains first-hand intelligence and experience through its liaison officer at the US Navy 5th Fleet Headquarters. Ties with the US improve and the mission is not threatened. Because Japan provides over 40 per cent of the fuel to non-US Navy vessels, its role is pivotal. It is unlikely that Pakistan would be able to carry out its MIO operations without Japanese fuel. President Karzai of Afghanistan thanked Japan in a 2004 speech at the UN for its involvement.

Symbolically, there is much riding on Japan’s involvement in the MIO, both domestically and internationally. Making forecasts in this field is always risky, but Fukuda looks like he might just pull it off. He has the determination: he engineered the first Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law as Koizumi’s Chief Cabinet Secretary in 2001 and sees its benefits. He also has the personality: unlike Abe, Fukuda is not as divisive a figure within Japanese policy circles, and is known for his ability to compromise. He has already disarmed Ozawa once with this tactic. Perhaps he will do it again.

John Hemmings
Studies Co-ordinator, RUSI



The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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