POTENTIAL CONFLICT AGAINST IRAN PROMPTS NEW ROUND OF DISCUSSIONS OVER JAPAN'S PEACE CONSTITUTION
As international pressure is mounting against Iran and Tehran threatens to cut off international access to the Strait of Hormuz, it has been revealed by public statements by senior officials that Japan is preparing for a potential military conflict over Iran's nuclear program and considering its possible involvement.
A conflict in the Persian Gulf would "affect Japanese national interests," said Japanese Prime Minister's Special Adviser for the Middle East Nagashima Akihisa, given that 20% of Japan's gas and 80% of its oil comes through the Strait of Hormuz, and that oil shipments from Iran represent 8.8% of the country's total energy imports.
On February 10, Japanese Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko said the Diet should consider dispatching Self-Defense Forces in case "something happened" to disrupt shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
Some local conservative newspapers (such as the Sankei Shinbun) report that Japanese Self Defence Forces (SDF) are already preparing for the possibility of a blockade of the Strait, including considering the dispatch of Maritime Self Defence Forces' Aegis warships to escort Japanese-owned or operated gas and oil tankers through the Strait of Hormuz.
According to some observers, these internal considerations come as an answer to US prompting for Japanese involvement in case of conflict. The weekly magazine The Tokyo Diplomat reports that "the day before Prime Minister Noda made his comments in the Diet, the US Pacific Commander Robert Willard instructed the Japanese government that they should consider sending the Self-Defense Forces to the Persian Gulf in the event of military conflict."
Article 9 of Japan's constitution prohibits the use of force and the dispatch of its land, sea or air forces abroad. However, in order to circumvent this clause, some special measures laws have been passed to govern SDF activities abroad in the context of anti-terrorism and anti-piracy operations.
Enacting a new special measure law is precisely what Nagashima suggested on March 5, so as to authorize the MSDF to escort Japanese gas and oil tankers through a blockaded Hormuz Strait. But as the Shingestsu News Agency observes, doing so would involve a serious risk of direct military conflict between Japan and Iran - a move that would violate the spirit of Japan's peace constitution.
Discussions regarding Japan's involvement in the event of a conflict over Iran's nuclear program take place at a time when the Liberal Democratic Party is pushing for a new round of discussions over revising the country's constitution.
The new draft - a revised version of the proposals put forward by the LDP in 2005 - will notably include a provision that would give the prime minister the authority to declare a state of emergency in cases of armed attack on the country, terrorism or massive natural disaster. Though the proposed text would conserve the war-renouncing first paragraph of Article 9, language would be added to ensure it could be interpreted more broadly so as to authorize collective self-defense. It would, however, get rid of the second sentence which prohibits the maintenance of armed forces and other war potential and the right to belligerency.
Internal LDP considerations of the proposals are set to take place in April.
A March 2012 poll conducted by the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun suggests an increased proportion of Japanese public opinion favors a more flexible role of Japan's SDF in foreign military operations, although a majority continues to support the ban on Japan's participation in conflict overseas. If 39% of those polled favor a revision of Article 9 (a 7% increase from last year), another 39% prefer "handling issues related to the article through interpretation and implementation," and 13% believes "Article 9 should be strictly interpreted to prevent Japan from participating in all foreign military operations."
The push for constitutional revision by opposition party the LDP is expected to face opposition from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan which controls the lower house of the Japanese Diet. It is unclear whether the ruling and opposition parties will be able to agree on a special measures law to secure Japan's shipping through the Persian Gulf, even in a post-Fukushima context that has increased the country's need for energy security.
Source: Global Article 9 Campaign to Abolish War, Newsletter #46, März 2012
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