Backed by a reinterpreted constitution, Japanese peacekeepers who arrived in South Sudan on Monday will be allowed to use force to protect civilians, themselves, and UN staff for the first time in nearly 70 years.
About 350 troops from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces replace Japanese peacekeepers who were previously on the ground serving in the United Nations mission in South Sudan, an East African country in the midst of a civil war that has raged since December 2013. More than 12,000 UN peacekeepers are in South Sudan. They have been criticized for failure to protect civilians.
Until 2015, Japan’s constitution, which was written under the guidance of the US after World War II, forbade the use of force to settle international disputes. But now, in a controversial decision last year, the Japanese legislature relaxed the limits on force, raising opponents' concerns that the new interpretation of the pacifist constitution could embroil the country's military in international conflict.
“The Abe administration may think that the new mandate, which will be given to the 350 Ground Self-Defense Force personnel to be dispatched there next month, will bring Japan’s peacekeeping mission closer to international standards,” according to a Japan Times editorial. “But the government should also be aware of, and be accountable for, what it could possibly entail.”
The main objective of the newly deployed troops is to help rebuild infrastructure in the nation’s capital, Juba. But now, they are allowed to patrol and protect UN peacekeepers’ camps and “fire warning shots to make an armed group back off and have approval to fire directly at assailants if they determine themselves to be in life-threatening danger,” writes Julian Ryall from Japan for the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
Japanese conservatives, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have long argued that Japan should be able to serve a more meaningful role in international peacekeeping and have the power to assist those in danger.
Mr. Abe also has pushed for the need for more military powers amid growing threats from China's increasingly forceful military and North Korea's nuclear ambitions. His government recently requested another increase in spending on Japan’s military to expand missile defenses. If approved, this would be the nation’s fifth consecutive annual increase in military spending, according to The New York Times.
Some worry that the country is straying from its commitment to pacifism, a shift that could escalate tensions with China and North Korea.
“We’re in the middle of what is commonly called the security dilemma,” Richard Samuels, a Japan specialist and the director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Times.
“When one nation does something which it believes to be defensive and in its own interests, its competitor will see it as threatening and see it as offensive, and then you get this arms race and security dilemma,” he said. “That’s very much in play here.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.