Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Japan has sent three warships to the Indian Ocean to provide the U.S.-led war against terrorism with non-combat support.
The move follows passage of a bill allowing Japan to send troops to conflict situations for the first time since the end of World War II. The special anti-terrorism legislation was rushed through parliament by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to enable Japan to contribute to the campaign in Afghanistan.
A spokesman for Koizumi said the main task of the two destroyers and a supply vessel, carrying a total of 700 sailors, would be intelligence gathering and preparing the route for a larger naval force to follow.
They left the port of Sasebo, which also serves as base to various U.S. Navy facilities, early Friday morning, and expected to arrive in the Indian Ocean within a fortnight.
The British-administered island of Diego Garcia is being used as a launch pad for U.S. bombers operating over Afghanistan, and the Japanese involvement will include logistical supply to the island.
Japan's post-war pacifist constitution forbids the Self Defense Forces (SDF) from participating in military operations on foreign soil.
Opposition parties have argued in recent weeks that providing even a non-combatant contribution violates the constitutional prohibition on using military force to solve international disputes.
But Japan was stung by criticism during the 1991 Gulf War, when it offered $13 billion in financial aid but no military support to the coalition formed to oust Iraqi occupation forces from Kuwait.
Japanese defense policy specialist Dr. Takao Sebata said it was clear the U.S. had exerted considerable pressure on Japan to "show the flag" in the campaign against terror following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
"It's a very significant day, a turning point for the Self Defense Forces," said Sebata, who teaches in the international studies faculty at the International Pacific College.
While the role of the deployed force was strictly limited, he said, its deployment was setting an important precedent.
In a decade or more, one could possibly expect to see Japanese forces involved in a combat situation. Although it seems unthinkable now, over the years political leaders will slowly educate the public until a majority no longer regards military action as a threat.
There are also concerns outside of Japan about its military aims.
South Korea and China, both victims of Japanese aggression in the first half of the 20th century, have expressed reservations about an expanded role for Japan's modern-day military.
Sebata noted that the South Korean government recently urged Japan to stay within the confines of its constitution when it came to its involvement in the current campaign.
Koizumi has taken pains to assure both countries and others in the region that Tokyo has no hostile intentions. The new law restricts Japanese involvement to delivering non-lethal logistic supplies, surveillance, search and rescue operations, providing medical services to the combat forces and aid to refugees.
Earlier it was reported that Japan may include one of its most advanced warships, a destroyer equipped with an Aegis radar system, on this mission. The decision not to do so in the first batch of ships being sent is being read by some in Japan as an attempt not to unsettle the Chinese or South Koreans with a highly sophisticated deployment.
Defense Agency officials also told Japanese media the Aegis-equipped destroyer, which has the fleet's most advanced reconnaissance capabilities, would not be included because of opposition in parliament.
Providing intelligence to U.S. forces that has been gathered by Aegis could cross the boundary between non-combat and combat activity and thus violate the constitution, some lawmakers fear.
Sebata said some SDF officers had expressed doubts about the utility of Aegis in the present mission. "Aegis is meant to defend ships against missile attack. It's unlikely the Taliban or others in Afghanistan pose that kind of retaliatory threat." In any case, they argue, the U.S. has more than enough intelligence-gathering capability.
If an Aegis-equipped ship is sent at a later stage, he said, "the main reason will be symbolic." By sending such a sophisticated vessel, Japan will want to show it is making a serious contribution to the campaign.
The Japanese government is also planning to ship or fly in relief supplies for Afghan refugees, both located inside Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan, by the end of the month.
Japanese Military Cleared For Role In Anti-Terror War (Oct. 29, 2001)