Subject: SMH: Japan on verge of peacekeeping role in Timor

Sydney Morniing Herald Monday, October 1, 2001

Japan on verge of peacekeeping role in Timor

Terrorist attacks in the US have pushed Koizumi's Government to reassess security obligations, writes Michael Millett in Tokyo.

Japan's determination to "fly the flag" in an international anti-terrorist strike force could result in it becoming a key player in East Timor.

Australia has been lobbying for Japan's Self-Defence Forces to take an active peacekeeping role in the new nation and ease the heavy military burden.

Those efforts have been stymied in the past by political sensitivities in Japan over its defence force's role.

While it is one of the best-equipped military forces in the world, its deployment overseas has been limited by the constraints of a Constitution which renounces war..

However, the September 11 terrorist attack in the United States has transformed the political dynamics in Japan, galvanising the Koizumi Administration into action and forcing a public reassessment of the nation's international security obligations.

The Government is pushing potentially far-reaching legislation through the Diet to enable the SDF to assist a US-led military operation in the Middle East. The legislation includes relaxing restrictions on the use of weapons by defence force personnel.

Under existing rules, Japanese soldiers can only use arms to defend themselves, other SDF units and supplies of ammunition and equipment.

Although the new legislation is intended to be "campaign-specific", the view in Canberra and Tokyo is that it could ultimately see Japanese troops engaged in international peacekeeping ventures, removing technical obstacles that prevent Japan from playing a limited logistical role in East Timor.

Because of its political hesitancy, Japan was forced into a traditional role of cheque-signer, underwriting most of the cost of the mission in East Timor.

This caused some tension in the Tokyo-Canberra relationship, with the Howard Government forcing Japan to up the ante on its initial proposed contribution.

The Koizumi Administration has been eyeing a Timor peacekeeping contribution, largely restricted to rear guard engineering and other logistical work. Even that would be the first major SDF operation since Cambodia in the early 1990s.

The debate is whether the Japanese contribution could be elevated to a more active role. A Japanese Government delegation went to Timor days after the September 11 attack to assess the situation.

The Australian view is that a Japanese presence at the "sharp end" of peacekeeping in East Timor would ease the heavy logistical burden and would make the mission more effective.

"The SDF don't have much of an international profile," a senior Australian source said. "But they are extremely well-equipped and well-disciplined."

An indication of the Australian respect is that a senior naval officer from Tokyo observed the Kakadu multilateral war games in July, reportedly the first time that the SDF has taken part in a non-US military exercise.

Even before September 11, the Koizumi Government had indicated its preparedness to end a longstanding freeze on large Japanese peacekeeping operations.

But Diet-imposed restrictions on the role of the SDF remained a stumbling block, particularly the stipulation that weapons should only be used in the defence of Japanese troops.

That meant SDF personnel could not use their firearms to defend other peacekeepers under attack - endangering both the troops and the civilians they were supposed to be defending.

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