Would Japanese troops come to China’s aid if its UN peacekeepers come under attack?
Japan approves additional role for its troops in South Sudan, with limits
Japan has approved a plan for its troops in South Sudan on UN operations to conduct rescue missions - a role that also would theoretically oblige them to jointly defend peacekeepers’ camps under attack, alongside foreign soldiers.
The new rescue role comes amid critics’ concerns the move risks embroiling Japanese soldiers in their first overseas fighting since the second world war.
The new mandate, which will apply to troops to be dispatched to South Sudan from November 20, is in line with security legislation enacted last year to expand the overseas role of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF), as the military is known.
“South Sudan cannot assure its peace and stability on its own and for that very reason, a U.N. peacekeeping operation is being conducted,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday.
“The SDF ... is carrying out activities that only it can do in a tough environment.”
The Japanese troops are in South Sudan primarily to help build infrastructure in the war-torn country, but under the new mission will be allowed to respond to urgent calls from UN staff and non-governmental organisation (NGO) personnel.
Regional rival China has a considerable peacekeeper presence in South Sudan, numbering more than 1,000, according to UN figures in August.
The Japanese government has been trying to downplay the notion that its new mission would be highly dangerous, saying that SDF members will only be called upon if South Sudan authorities or other UN troops responsible for security enforcement cannot respond and that they will not act in situations beyond their ability.
Japan’s Defence Minister Tomomi Inada has said the government does not envision Japanese troops rescuing other foreign troops.
“I want to point out that our country is sending an engineer unit (tasked to build roads and other infrastructure). Any rescue mission would be conducted only to the extent possible in practical terms, while ensuring the safety of the personnel,” Inada said at a recent press conference.
In the rescue mission, SDF members can fire warning shots to make an armed group or rioters back off. They can also return fire if they are attacked or feel life-threatening danger. Previously, the use of weapons by SDF personnel during UN peacekeeping missions had been limited to strict self-defence purposes and to avert danger.
The SDF members are also tasked with playing a bigger role in the protection of UN peacekeepers’ camps as they will be allowed to jointly defend the areas with troops from other nations even if SDF members are not the direct targets of attacks.
The government has also said it will be difficult for SDF members, while on a mission to undertake engineering work for infrastructure building, to go to the protection of others when fierce fighting is taking place, as seen in Juba in July. Two Chinese peacekeepers died that month after an attack on an armoured vehicle that was guarding a refugee camp near the UN compound in the South Sudanese capital.
The activities of the next batch of Japanese troops, composed mainly of members of the GSDF’s 5th Infantry Regiment, will be limited to operations in Juba and nearby areas. They will be prepared to perform rescue missions from December 12, when they officially take over the job from the current 350-member unit.
Opponents of the move fear the mission will ensnare Japanese troops in fighting for the first time since the second world war.
“Security is a concern. If it weren’t dangerous, why would they need to carry guns?” said Kiro Chikazawa, a Tokyo civil servant who took part in a small protest near Abe’s office.
Other critics say the deployment violates conditions for peacekeeping operations set in line with Japan’s pacifist constitution.
“It goes without saying that the operation must be executed within the confines of the constitution and pertinent Japanese laws,” said an October editorial by the Asahi newspaper.
“But now, South Sudan is effectively in a state of civil war,” the paper added.
“Such being the case, we must opposed the assignment of rush-and rescue operations to the SDF.”
A civil conflict erupted in South Sudan in December 2013, but President Salva Kiir and his rival, former vice president Riek Machar signed, a peace deal in 2015 that was meant to halt the fighting. The agreement failed to stick. Machar has since left the country and sporadic clashes have continued.
Additional reporting by Kyodo