The Abe administration’s passive pacifism

By Paul Midford

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in late 2012 promising to pursue a policy of pro-active contributions to peace, a stance it contrasted with the previous Japanese stance of “passive pacifism,” or talking about peace but not getting involved to help promote global peace and security, especially in ways that might working in risky and difficult environments overseas. Abe’s 2013 National Security Strategy (NSS) boldly declared that Japan would “further step up its cooperation with United Nations PKO [peacekeeping operations] and other international peace cooperation activities, with its determination to contribute even more proactively to peace.” 

Yet, more than seven years after Abe returned to power, and more than six years after his cabinet made this bold declaration, the reality of his administration’s policies diverge sharply from its rhetoric. When Abe returned to power, he inherited three U.N. PKO missions from the previous Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda: the Self Defense Force (SDF) deployment in the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel that had been ongoing since 1995, a deployment to the U.N. PKO in Haiti, that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama authorized in 2010, and a deployment to South Sudan that Noda had ordered in 2012. Soon after taking office, Abe terminated the SDF deployments to the PKOs in the Golan Heights and Haiti. As Syria had entered a civil war and U.N. operations in Haiti were winding down, these withdrawal decisions perhaps made sense, but neither mission was replaced by a new SDF deployment to another U.N. peacekeeping mission, despite 16 ongoing U.N. PKOs in need of troops.

Nonetheless, Abe continued the SDF mission in South Sudan, even as the internal security situation in that country deteriorated to the point of a de facto civil war. Although SDF participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions has enjoyed broad public support since the 1990s, this mission became increasingly controversial as it appeared to violate one of Japan’s five PKO participation principles, namely the presence of an effective ceasefire. Following the enactment of broad package of security legislation in 2015 that, among other things, authorized a new mission for SDF peacekeepers known as Kaketsuke-Keigo, or rushing to the defense of geographically fellow peacekeepers, including through the use of weapons, the Abe administration authorized this mission for the SDF unit in South Sudan from late 2016. This new mission thus gave SDF personnel greater leeway to use weapons in defense of fellow peacekeepers and others. 

Yet, the rules of engagement for this new mission were so strict that it was practically difficult for the SDF to use force to defend other peacekeepers. In fact, during the six months for which this mission was authorized, the SDF never once engaged in a Kaketsuke-Keigo or use of weapons to defend other peacekeepers, even though they, did in fact, face attacks. Abe ordered the SDF unit’s withdrawal from South Sudan by May 2017. In retrospect, the Abe administration’s decision to continue this mission until that time appeared mostly designed to allow it to set the domestic legal precedent of authoring Kaketsuke-Keigo in practice, but without having to actually engage in combat.

Since the withdrawal of the SDF unit from South Sudan nearly three years ago, Japan has arguably been at what can be described as “PKO Zero." For the first time since 1992, Japan has not had any unit-level, boots-on-the-ground participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations. The Abe administration can, however, point to the continued deployment of several SDF officers at U.N. headquarters in South Sudan, and the dispatch of several officers to the headquarters of the peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Peninsula in 2019. The Sinai case represents a new precedent as the first time that the SDF has ever participated in a non-U.N. sponsored PKO.

Yet, both of these deployments are arguably more symbolic than substantive. They do not involve the sharing of risk and sweating together with peacekeepers from other countries doing the difficult but vital work of on-the-ground peacekeeping in challenging post-conflict environments. The gold standard of Japan’s contribution to international society in the 1990s and early 2000s was “boots on the ground.” By comparison, deploying a few staff officers to safe and relatively comfortable headquarters, while undeniably a modest contribution, represents a real retreat from the far larger and meaningful contribution that put SDF boots on the ground to share in the main work of peacekeeping. 

Abe administration defenders also point to Japan’s efforts at capacity building and training, which involves inviting peacekeepers from other countries to Japan or training them in safe areas overseas. That also represents a modest contribution to global peacekeeping efforts, but like putting a few officers in headquarters, it indicates that the Abe administration is unwilling to take risks for the sake of contributing to international security. Rather than a proactive contribution to peace, or pro-active pacifism, this is more like passive pacifism. This is very different from what the Abe administration promised in 2013. In retrospect, it seems that it was actually the DPJ who practiced pro-active pacifism.

It is time for the Abe administration to clarify its policy on peacekeeping: Does it intend to begin honoring the promise to increase its involvement in peacekeeping operations, or at least return to the level of SDF participation that Japan had in 2013? If not, it needs to clearly explain its new policy of PKO Zero.

Paul Midford is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Japan Program at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim and specially-appointed professor at Osaka University.

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