Other Views

Saturday, April 3, 1999

Japan needs greater
defensive latitude

By Ralph A. Cossa


The recent naval incident in the Sea of Japan -- resulting in the first shots fired in anger by Japanese ships in more than 45 years -- serves to highlight the importance of the current Diet debate on Japan's defense guidelines. It also revealed the shortcomings of the guidelines themselves.

The Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation address defense cooperation in case of an armed attack against Japan, and in situations in areas surrounding Japan that have an important influence on the country's security. While most attention has been paid to the latter, the naval incident reminds us that, even under normal circumstances, threats to Japan exist and must be addressed.

The two antenna-laden intruding ships (believed to be North Korean intelligence ships on an espionage mission) were first pursued by Maritime Safety Agency (MSA) coast guard ships, which fired the first warning shots.While the MSA has the authority to use weapons if the situation is grave enough, this is reportedly the first time it has done so since challenging a suspected Soviet spy ship off northern Japan in 1953.

The suspicious ships began fleeing at speeds of 35 knots. Thus, it became necessary for the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces (JMSDF) to conduct what has now been described as "the first purely military operation ever assigned to the Self Defense Forces."For this to occur, the prime minister -- in consultation with his Cabinet at a post-midnight emergency meeting -- was required to invoke Article 82 of the Self Defense Force Law, permitting Japanese naval ships to try to stop and inspect intruders.

As is the case for MSA coast guard ships, however, unless fired upon first, JMSDF naval ships are only permitted to fire warning shots that "will not cause human injury."As a result, the intruders were able to flee toward the North Korean coast, at which time the Japanese Navy prudently ended the chase.

The passage of the defense guidelines implementing legislation, while absolutely essential to permit greater and smoother cooperation between U.S. and Japanese military forces, still falls short of permitting Japanese Self Defense Forces to effectively respond to such situations.

The guidelines do call for closer coordination and information sharing between U.S. and Japanese forces -- and U.S. Navy P-3 surveillance aircraft reportedly helped track the fleeing intruders in this instance -- but do not address Japan's limited ability in peacetime to conduct what others would consider routine defense operations.

The ongoing defense guidelines debate does, however, provide Japanese legislators with a golden opportunity to discuss the larger question of Japan's role not only in assisting the U.S. in maintaining or restoring peace in areas surrounding Japan, but also in defending itself under normal circumstances against a variety of potential military threats.

For example, while some in Japan speculate about preemptive strikes against overseas missile sites that appear ready to fire upon Japan, other Japanese defense specialists argue that, technically speaking, a Japanese ship armed with defensive missiles operating outside Japan's territorial waters would not be permitted to fire at incoming missiles until the first missile struck Japan.

The Self Defense Forces' authority to defend itself using all appropriate means against intruding ships, aircraft or missiles should be clear and unambiguous. Likewise, a debate over whether preemptive strikes are legal should not be postponed until hostile missiles are loaded and readied for firing. These are decisions better made in the light of day than at midnight emergency meetings.
We can thank the intruding ships for pointing out that passage of the guidelines' implementing legislation, while an important first step, still falls short of allowing Japan to perform what most would consider to be normal defensive operations.

Ralph A. Cossa is executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS,
a Honolulu-based policy-oriented research institute affiliated with the Center
for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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