Japan’s Refueling Debate Reheated

Once again Japan is embroiled in one of those hair-splitting arguments over the extent to which it can participate in overseas military operations without bending its constitution and its war-renouncing Article 9 out of all recognition.

The catalyst for the latest round of hand-wringing is the expiration on November 1 of the anti-terrorism law that permits Japanese navy oilers to refuel American war ships in the Indian Ocean to support operations in Afghanistan.

Rather than seek a fourth extension, the government of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda last week submitted a new bill to the Diet in an effort to try to smooth passage though the opposition-controlled House of Councilors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament. On Sunday Fukuda called the refueling mission "a responsibility to fulfill in the international community."

The Democratic Party of Japan argues that the operation could lead to greater use of Japanese military forces overseas in defiance of Article 9, the so-called pacifist clause of the Japan’s post-World War Two constitution. It says that assisting the US in counter-terrorism operations off the coast of South Asia, which the US views as self-defense, could be construed as “collective defense,” counter to the constitution.

Of course, the Democrats also see the refueling operations, which are generally unpopular in Japan, as a wedge to force Fukuda to call a general election at a time when political tides are running in the opposition’s favor. Fukuda does not have to call an election until 2009.

The refueling operation was begun under former premier Junichiro Koizumi. So far Tokyo has supplied the US with $200 million worth of bunker oil at Japanese taxpayer expense. Almost all of it goes to US Navy vessels.

The week that the cabinet approved the replacement bill, an anti-war group leaked a report that the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) supplied 800,000 gallons of fuel to the US Navy in the weeks just before the Iraqi invasion instead of the 200,000 gallons officially reported.

The Japanese oiler transferred the fuel to a US Navy oiler, which, in turn, supplied the USS Kitty Hawk, which was operating at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The transfer occurred in February, 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, the implication being that Japan assisted in the invasion.

US Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer, who is working overtime to secure the extension of the refueling operation, claimed that the amount would not have been enough to power the massive aircraft carrier or fuel its aircraft, by the time the attack was launched on March 20.

Still, it embarrassed the government and provided fodder for those in Japan who argue that any kind of military cooperation with the US is a step toward full rearmament and abandonment of Article 9.

Fukuda went before the Diet to regret the “mistake” and defend the policy: “The area in which the MSDF is operating is limited to a non-combat zone by the framework of the law, and therefore the mission does not go against Article 9 of the constitution.”

Such are the contortions and tortured arguments that Japan’s leaders have to use to try to square their pacifistic constitution ‑ which pretty plainly prohibits Japan from possessing any armaments ‑ with its perceived international obligations as a major power and ally of the US

A plan to amend the constitution and modify the language of Article 9 was gaining momentum under the previous administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had made revision a priority. But the Japanese people made it clear in the July 29 upper house election that they had other priorities.

The new prime minister comes from a wing of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that is less obsessed with the symbols of conservative nationalism. The party undoubtedly would have preferred to begin its administration with a less divisive issue, but its hand was forced because of the impending expiration.

Once it is law, if it becomes law, Japan will probably hear a lot less about constitutional revision, Yasukuni Shrine visits (Fukuda has already ruled them out) and other symbolic and substantive issues dear to the hearts of the LDP’s right wing.

That will probably suit the vast majority of Japanese just fine. The country remains extremely cautious about changing or eliminating Article 9, which has served Japan well over the past 60 years since the American-written document was promulgated.

If the taboo on collective defense were eroded and Japan came to assume a military role as a US ally, it might be forced to go to war in future conflicts in which Washington plays a leading role.

In part because of Article 9, Japanese forces were never sent to fight in the Vietnam War, unlike South Korea. In that respect Article 9 has been likened to a safety valve on the US-Japan relationship that many Japanese feel is too important to give up lightly.

After the Gulf War in 1991, to which Tokyo contributed billions in financial support but no troops, it became increasingly difficult for Japan to avoid the pressure to provide manpower in support of adventures in the Middle East even by citing Article 9.

Koizumi supported the decision to invade Iraq and even decided to send non-combat6 ground and air forces to the region (under a separate law). When the ground forces returned to Japan, Koizumi boasted that the troops had never been caught up in the fighting and suffered no casualties.

That’s because the SDF chose a relatively safe corner of the country and performed duties that involved little danger (protected by Dutch and later Australian troops) and thus was consistent with the spirit of Article 9.

In the past 60 years a consensus in Japan has taken hold. It amounts to support for the security treaty with the US, support for the self-defense forces as presently configured, and support for Article 9. If this consensus seems contradictory, the Japanese would say “let’s make the most of it.”