Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Japan is ready to move from being a pacifist player to a military power once again, according to a new public policy report published in Australia.
It recommends that Tokyo be encouraged to modernize its armed forces and become more active in maintaining regional security.
The report by the Lowy Institute, an independent foreign policy think tank, was released as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi moved towards extending Japan's modest but historical deployment of troops in Iraq.
Tokyo's contribution of 550 troops to the U.S.-led coalition was the country's first military mission to a theater of conflict since imperial Japan's defeat at the end of World War II led to the signing of a U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution.
Within the constraints of that constitution, Koizumi's government passed legislation permitting the "Self-Defense Forces" (SDF), as Japan's military is known, to be sent almost a year ago to a "non-combat zone" in Iraq.
The troops are stationed in the southern city of Samawah for humanitarian operations, and the area's security is the responsibility of a Dutch military contingent.
The one-year SDF mandate in Iraq expires on December 14, and the U.S. has indicated that it hopes for a renewal.
"I think that Japan has made a major international statement by having the SDF there," U.S. Ambassador in Tokyo Howard Baker told reporters on Monday. "I think they have performed humanitarian functions that are much admired. I think it would be a shame if that was not continued."
Koizumi is coming under pressure not to extend the mission from the Democratic Party (DPJ), the liberal official opposition which made significant gains in lower house of parliament elections a year ago and again in Senate elections last July.
On the other hand, the third-largest party, Koizumi's Buddhist-based coalition partner, has given him crucial support for keeping the troops in Japan beyond December.
The prime minister has yet to announce a firm decision, but he did tell lawmakers that he would like the troops to stay.
"Members of the Self-Defense Forces are carrying out a mission appreciated by local residents," he said. "We want to continue these activities that are highly regarded by residents there."
Buoyed by recent opinion polls in which a majority of respondents opposed extending the mission, the DPJ is preparing to bring a bill before parliament that would prevent it by repealing the special law that permitted the dispatch.
Critics of the deployment argue that Samawah, almost 300 km south of Baghdad, cannot accurately be called a non-combat zone.
"All of Iraq is now a combat zone and the situation could arise where the lives of SDF members are placed in danger," senior DPJ lawmaker Yoshio Hachiro was quoted as saying.
Japanese troops have not come under enemy attack in Samawah, although a rocket shell did land in their base late last month. It caused little damage and no injuries.
Responding to arguments that the SDF should withdraw because Samawah was not safe, Koizumi drew a distinction between the place being a non-combat zone and being safe: "I never said Samawah was safe. The SDF is there because it is not safe."
Five Japanese have been killed in Iraq , but none of them were soldiers. Two journalists were shot dead last May, and two diplomats were ambushed and killed a year ago.
The slaying last month of a Japanese backpacker seized and beheaded by terrorists in Iraq fueled criticism of Koizumi. He had rejected the kidnappers' demands to pull out the SDF troops within 48 hours.
Osaka University international politics professor Kazuya Sakamoto wrote this week that although many people questioned the correctness of the war, "there is no doubt that the establishment of a sound political system over there is desirable for the world as a whole."
Whatever decision Japan makes on extending the mission, it must prioritize two things, Sakamoto said.
"First, Japan intends to continue helping Iraq's reconstruction, and second, Tokyo continues to attach strong importance to Japan-U.S. relations."
A more assertive Japan envisioned
According to the report by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, Japan's shift towards having a more assertive security policy was "evolutionary, not revolutionary, but it is gaining momentum."
The report's author, international security specialist Alan Dupont, said there was a real possibility that Japan could revise its pacifist constitution by the end of this decade, and so speed up its transformation from a "well-equipped but combat-deficient military to a more usable, deployable defense force."
Dupont accepted that Japan's rise would prompt some tension in the region, notably from China, because of Tokyo's militaristic past, but argued that any fears would not be well-founded.
"Given its geo-strategic vulnerabilities, energy dependence and declining birth rate, Japan is hardly in a position to embark on a policy of military adventurism or expansionism in East Asia, not least because it would be vehemently opposed by China, Japan's principal competitor for regional influence, as well as its major ally, the U.S."
Dupont said although Koizumi was driving the move towards a more outward-looking security stance, Japanese public opinion had also been changing over the past decade, largely because of China's rise, the terror threat, and North Korea.
He said Australia should support Japan and encourage it to play a greater security role in the region.
Japan and Australia, both strong allies of the U.S. in Iraq, are "often described as the northern and southern anchors of the U.S. alliance in Asia," the report said.
It recommended that Tokyo and Canberra should also "cooperate more closely in order to influence Washington's approach to Asian security issues."
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.