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Shinzo Abe

Mission accomplished? Japan is pulling its troops out of South Sudan but few believe Shinzo Abe’s explanation

The decision to pull out of South Sudan contrasts with China’s ongoing commitment to the UN mission

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 March, 2017, 3:07pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 March, 2017, 10:56pm

The Japanese government’s decision to withdraw its Self-Defence Forces (SDF) from their UN peacekeeping operation in South Sudan has raised a host of questions about the depth of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s commitment to global security.

Abe’s stated reason – that the peacekeepers’ mission to rebuild infrastructure destroyed by the ongoing civil war has been completed – met widespread scepticism, including from within the SDF.

Abe announced on Friday the 350-strong unit presently in South Sudan would be returning to Japan in May after a deployment lasting seven months.

“As South Sudan enters a new phase of nation-building, we have decided that we can now put an end to our infrastructure building efforts,” Abe said in Tokyo.

Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary, was quick to emphasise the troops were not being recalled “because of the deteriorating security situation”. Some were unconvinced.

“If there was a casualty of any kind among the Japanese troops, then that would have spelled doom for Abe’s plans to expand Japan’s role and presence in future UN peacekeeping teams,” said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.

“Events in South Sudan now have really forced their hand and it has become increasingly dangerous there. But equally, Abe cannot say they are withdrawing for that reason because that dooms his policy just as badly. So this is the only way the administration can play it.

“And whether you see it as a bald-faced lie by the government or an attempt to put the best face on a highly unstable situation will depend on where you’re coming from politically.”

Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said no one believed the government’s stated reasons for recalling the SDF. Instead, it represented “the latest example of the government’s schizophrenic approach to a proactive contribution to global security”.

“Abe wants to pick and choose his successes so he can build support for the expansion of Japan’s security policies, both regionally and globally,” Nagy said.

Watch: SDF engineers join peacekeeping mission in 2015

A Japanese soldier wounded or, in a worst-case scenario, killed, would cause backlash at home that would cause irreparable damage to the prime minister’s longer-term ambitions, he said.

Within the SDF, there was also scepticism about the reasons given for the withdrawal – and its timing. The Abe administration “must have been looking for a timely moment” because of growing safety concerns, one SDF official said.

Another SDF member said: “[The decision] came at a very odd moment and I can only think of it as a way to distract attention from other [domestic] issues.”

That SDF member noted security conditions had already deteriorated significantly when large-scale fighting broke out in Juba in July.

The decision to pull out of South Sudan contrasts with China’s ongoing commitment to the UN mission. China has contributed 2,594 peacekeepers – mostly troops but also 150 police and 33 military experts. Some of those peacekeepers paid the ultimate price: two were killed and several wounded by a mortar attack in Juba last July.

Japan’s opposition parties and left-wing media have made little of the SDF’s South Sudan pull-out.

The Democratic Party is the largest opposition force and campaigned in vain against revisions to the law that permitted Japanese troops to carry weapons and fire in self-defence. It remains a weak and ineffective counterbalance to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Most Japanese were uncomfortable with troops being committed abroad in the first place and the news they were to come home unscathed was welcomed as a positive development.

“There has been a lot of concern expressed because the SDF are now able to shoot,” Nagy said. “There is less concern about this operation in Africa but more about how this change is going to be interpreted in north-east Asia.

“It could very easily be portrayed as a return to militarism; I’m certain that’s not the case but it could be used in that way. And it also goes against the identity that Japanese have built for themselves since the second world war as being pacifists.”

Additional reporting by Kyodo