The first group of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force troops has arrived back in Aomori, northern city of Japan on Wednesday, April 19, after a five-year peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. The rest of the unit members expected to return home by the end of May. The Japanese government announced the pullout of the troops from the United Nations mission in March as the security situation worsened in the northeastern African country. The return of the troops carries with it a lesson in diplomacy.
Earlier in March, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Tokyo would end its deployment of the Self-Defense Forces to South Sudan in May. Japan currently has about 350 SDF troops, focused on engineering, in the fragile sub-Saharan country.
The conclusion of the Japanese deployment—which began in 2012—is a minor body blow and learning lesson to the Abe administration as it looks to operationalize and test out elements of its new security legislation enacted in 2015.
Indeed, in 2016, the then newly-minted Defense Minister Tomomi Inada indicated that Japan was likely to extend the mission of the SDF in South Sudan past this spring. The extension would have been critical as it would have given more time to familiarize—in a live operational context—the SDF under the new security legislation passed by the Japanese Diet in 2015, which enables the use of weapons in certain situations.
However, the legal constraints on Japan’s ability to deploy the SDF eventually landed Inada in hot water – over her uncomfortable explanation in the Diet on whether there were “combat situations” in the South Sudanese capital. One of the key elements of the new security legislation was a reinterpretation of Japan’s constitutional right of collective self-defense and its ability to take part and potentially use arms to protect other units in peacekeeping operations (PKO). The Abe administration specifically addressed this point—kaketsuke-keigo (coming to the aid of a geographically distant unit or personnel under attack). He indicated that the new SDF deployment would need to prepare and train for such contingencies.
But with a deteriorating and unstable security situation in South Sudan, the die had been cast and it was only a matter of time before the Kantei looked to extricate itself from growing discontent in the Diet. The Abe administration had tried to play on the edges of the security situation in the country with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga noting earlier this month that “the security environment in the country remains very severe, but the conditions in the capital (where the SDF are deployed) remains stable.”
The SDF has been deployed in limited numbers to the South Sudan since 2012, shortly after the United Nations Mission to South Sudan was established following the country’s independence and separation from Sudan after years of civil war. Up until this point, the SDF, which are operating under the rubric of UNMISS, are largely a group of engineers concentrated in the South Sudanese capital of Juba.
During its deployment, the SDF has been mainly tasked with reconstruction on transportation infrastructure—such as key roads—in and around the capital city. However, the security situation in South Sudan has become increasingly volatile in recent months, and there are now reasonable concerns that deployed SDF could come in danger if the unrest spirals into a protracted civil war or greater regional conflict.
Some have taken the opportunity to call out the Abe administration for “backing out,” and those critical of an enhanced SDF role are using the South Sudan fiasco as a test case for their protest against the Prime Minister’s proactive contribution to peace. Others have pointed to the Defense Ministry’s heavy-handed approach and lack of transparency with regard to the security situation in Juba. Regardless of the debates that have taken place on the issue, however, the South Sudan mission also provides a good learning lesson for Japan on the limits and political sensitivities with the application of its new security legislation.
In the future, the Abe administration—and its successors—should look at how kaketsuke-keigo could be implemented with more clarity. Currently ,Tokyo is limited to interpret the SDF’s involvement to protect, for example, Japanese NGOs or United Nations staff under the force of arms if a conflict was to arise. This is different—at least from the interpretation favored by the Abe government—from the “use of force” against a state, because the premise is that most peacekeeping operations scenarios where SDF force may be needed would come against non-state actors. Such actions of force against state actors, in collective security or peacekeeping, would be considered as beyond what the current Constitution allows.
Simply put, the situation in South Sudan is an important step and learning lesson for Japan as it looks to enhance its security role through peacekeeping and other contributions via the SDF to international peace and security. While the deployment ended rather abruptly—and admist controversy—there are positives to take out of the experience as Tokyo looks to adapt itself to the realities and contours of its evolving security role.
J.Berkshire Miller is an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, based in Tokyo. Miller is also a senior fellow on East Asia for the EastWest Institute.