Friday, August 08, 2003

Japan's search for a non combat zone in Iraq
By: Monzurul Huq
The Daily Star* -

Japan is desperate to join the invasion in Iraq and there is no hiding in Tokyo's ambition to become part of a new axis of 'non-evils' that the Japanese leadership sees as the driving force in an uncertain world of the near future. Amid sharply divided opinion within the country's political circle, the Diet has already passed a bill allowing the powerful Japanese army under the disguise of a non-evil name of self-defense forces to be deployed in Iraq. However there is nothing clear yet about the future of the country (Iraq) or that of the invading forces of the 'non-evils'. It is interesting to note that the bill has been passed in the Diet with the active support of a political party preaching loudly the teachings of Bhagaban Buddha, the supreme proponent of the idea of self-sacrifice and non-violence. It, therefore, seems natural everywhere that when politics gets mixed-up with religion, both lose their respective position of respect and restraint.

For more than a decade Japan has been seen drifting slowly away from its post World War II pacifist position towards a more hawkish standing in international politics. It is true that Tokyo came under barrage of criticisms in 1991 for not joining the broader coalition of the first Gulf War by contributing troops. Japan was at that time still following strictly the principles that call for denouncing war and avoiding any military involvement outside its borders. Such principles, enshrined in country's war renouncing constitution, are still considered to be valid as there was no amendment to the article 9 that specifies the rejection of war or any preparation related to armed conflict overseas.

But politicians everywhere try to find out ways to overcome any obstacle that they might come across in their pursuit of reaching a specific goal. Here, in by-passing the constitutional bindings, the goal for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was to join the Bush-Blair axis at a time when Tokyo's closest ally has mostly been isolated in international politics and facing criticism at home for cheating the public by providing fictitious information about the threat that Iraq was posing. No doubt, the loud-voiced Buddhists and pacifists were happy to vote in favor of a bill that in all account counters the teachings of Buddha but helped Koizumi to save his face for the time being by not letting down his friends at the hour of their need.

Japan's re-emerging desire to be a military power capable of reaching distant corners of the globe was first publicly displayed in early 1990s, soon after the first Gulf War. During the post World War II period the first Japanese deployment of troops overseas was in Mozambique, where self-defense forces personnel were sent to help the country solve its internal conflicts. This was quickly followed by Tokyo's involvement in UN peacekeeping operations in Cambodia, Zaire, Golan Heights and East Timor.

But in all such previous occasions, despite criticism at home and in neighboring countries that saw a re-militarized Japan, in whatever form the process evolved, as a threat to their own security, the UN umbrella gave a tacit legitimacy to the act of by-passing country's pacifist constitution. But the new law that has been enacted a week ago is different in a sense. It doesn't mention at all the necessity to obtain approval from a collective world body before Japanese troops are to be deployed in distant territories. With the law in hand, Koizumi and his trusted advisers are now poised to send Japanese soldiers to Iraq with the overt intention of helping the process of rehabilitation and rebuilding of the country.

But there remains a small obstacle before the ambitious Japanese leadership would be able to satisfy its own desire of helping the axis of non-evils, to extend its present proximity that reminds many of Winston Churchill's infamous saying -- the 'white man's burden'. Japan, after all, is a country of the yellow race and this might help the new axis to dilute its image of being carrying a colonial burden of the past on its shoulder.

The new law also specifies that the Japanese self defense forces personnel are to be deployed only in non-combat zones in Iraq and initially they will be involved only in humanitarian and reconstruction work rather than providing logistic support to US troops. The changes in tone of the law is mostly to convince the nervous public who, amid the non-stop counting of body bags of US military personnel, are expressing increasing uneasiness over the deployment of Japanese troops in Iraq. Bowing to the public pressure, the Japanese government now appears to be seeking less hazardous mission for its troops. According to the original plan, they were supposed to maintain the supply of water and ammunitions and filling other logistic needs for US and other soldiers in Iraq. Koizumi now has to convince Washington to accept this new idea and analysts find it not to be an easy task for the Japanese leader.

Moreover, it is not yet clear where the Japanese troops are to be deployed in Iraq. The new law forbids their deployment in any combat zone. Critics of the law, who earlier opposed the passage of the bill, are now voicing their concern that since the whole of Iraq has turned into a combat zone with the mounting casualties on US side, sending troops anywhere in Iraq would be a gross violation of the new law.

Japan's popular daily Asahi Shimbun in one of its latest issues has published a fictitious conversation of a wife of a would be deployed Japanese military personnel with the prime minister. Replying to the queries of the worried wife about the areas in Iraq where fighting was going on and where not, the prime minister simply replied that she couldn't expect him to answer that question. In reply the wife asked the prime minister a second question: 'where will you send the contingent when you can't identify a non-combat zone?' The whole of Japan like the fictitious wife of the defense forces personnel is now anxiously waiting for an answer to this second question from the prime minister. A convincing reply is yet to come.

In fact the Japanese officials themselves are puzzled on the location of country's contingent in Iraq. Japan initially proposed to the US the idea guarding a number of airports including that of Baghdad. But the US is in no mood to hand over responsibilities of what it considers strategically important sites to outsiders. Instead, Washington proposed that Japanese soldiers should be stationed in Balad, a place where US troops are coming under repeated attacks in recent days. The proposal no doubt came as a horror to the Japanese officials and they are now saying that it might take a little longer to decide the location for troops deployment, and also to identify what specific duties Japanese soldiers are supposed to perform.

Such recent twist and turn of events have compelled even hawks in Japan to take a cautious standing concerning the location where Japanese soldiers are to be deployed. They too are obviously not at ease with the prospect of sending young self-defense forces personnel with no combat experience at all to a deadly trap like Balad. The defense agency chief Shigeru Ishiba, known for his hawkish standing, has indicated that it might not become possible for Japan to send its troops to Iraq before November. And if no non-combat zone in Iraq is located beyond that date, there is every possibility that the burden might remain on the shoulders of white man for a much more longer period.



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