WHILE American and Japanese officials continue to grapple with pressing bilateral trade issues, a number of political observers in Washington overlooked an event last week that may have a profound effect on security cooperation between these two important allies. Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu sent a flotilla of minesweepers to the Persian Gulf to join a multinational force currently clearing more than 700 mines laid by Iraq. Four Japanese minesweepers and two support ships will augment minesweep ing operations being conducted by the United States, Britain, Germany, France, and Saudi Arabia. This is not the first time the Japanese government has debated sending forces to the Gulf. Four years ago, former Prime Minister Nakasone proposed that Japanese minesweepers assist US forces in clearing Gulf shipping lanes used by tankers during the Iran-Iraq war. Domestic opposition to the plan caused Nakasone to withdraw the proposal.
The US requested last October that Japan send military forces to support the allied coalition. Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was unable to muster sufficient support in the Diet for a bill to create a Peace Cooperation Corps consisting of noncombatant Japanese Self-Defense Force personnel. The failure of Japan to contribute military forces to the effort generated friction between Tokyo and Washington, and demonstrated to many Japan's reluctance to play a political and security role in the international community commensurate with its economic strength.
Kaifu's dispatch of minesweepers represents an important domestic and international precedent concerning the employment and disposition of Japan's military forces. With the exception of minesweepers sent to assist American forces during the Korean war, this action represents the only time Japan has sent forces overseas since World War II.
Kaifu countered significant opposition within the Diet to the deployment, arguing that the dispatch of these units did not contravene Japan's constitution, which prohibits the use of force to settle international disputes. He contends that this operation is designed to secure safe navigation of Japanese shipping, and that this remains consistent with Japan's Self-Defense Force Law. This interpretation of what constitutes self-defense provides a substantive domestic legal precedent for Japan's leadership .
The debate over sending minesweepers forced Kaifu to confront the highly visible and emotionally charged issue of Japan's military posture in the Asia-Pacific region. States in the area remain concerned about a possible resurgence of Japanese militarism following the deployment of these vessels. Several ASEAN countries endorsed Japan's deployment, but they also cautioned against overzealous use of military force. Chinese Premier Li Peng told Nakasone that his country remains uncomfortable with this miss ion. While Asian security concerns about Japan are understandable due to recent history, they are frequently exaggerated. Minesweeping operations represent an appropriate role for Japan to play in the current international security environment. This mission will provide the Japanese Self-Defense Forces with a sense of purpose and legitimacy, and show that Japan can conduct various operations in accordance with accepted norms of international behavior. Such a lesson could be the most important legacy of this deployment.
Both US Defense Secretary Cheney and National Security Advisor Scowcroft understand the military and political significance of this mission. Japan possesses some of the largest and most effective minesweeping units in the world, and its military participation will hasten the removal of mines. The most important aspect of this decision is political, however. It will be easier now for the Japanese government to justify similar operations.
Japan has been criticized for its failure to come to grips with its international responsibilities. At the same time, other Asian countries are preoccupied with how Japan would use its new-found international status and military power. If this mission proves successful, it could serve as a catalyst for Japan to play a more prominent security role in peacekeeping operations, particularly in Cambodia and other parts of the third world. As the US continues to reappraise international commitments and reduce the size of the defense budget, burden sharing arrangements among the Western allies will become more important. The minesweeping decision, in this context, could be a positive step in promoting regional stability and reducing tension in the US-Japan relationship.