Thursday, October 25, 2007

Retooling the Refueling

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 totally out of all recognition.

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

Rather than seek a fourth extension、 the government of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda This 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.
The Democratic Party of Japan argues that the refueling operation could lead to greater use of Japanese military forces overseas in defiance of Article 9. It says that assisting the U.S. in counter-terrorism operations off the coast of South Asia, which the U.S views as self-defense, could be construed as “collective defense”, counter to 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 U.S. with \22 billion ($200 million) worth of bunker oil at Japanese taxpayer expense. Almost all of it goes to U.S. 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 U.S. Navy oiler, which, in turn, supplied the USS Kitty Hawk 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.
U.S 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 U.S. is just a slippery slope down the path to full rearmament and total 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 armamentswhatsoever, with its perceived international obligations as a major power and ally of the U.S.

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 Constitutional 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. It 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 the LDP’s right wing. That will probably suit the vast majority of the Japanese people just fine.


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