The Japanese government is considering the possibility of contributing personnel and other forms of aid to the effort to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles, Kyodo News reported over the weekend.
According to the report, the Shinzo Abe administration has been looking at providing financial aid and members of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the agency responsible for eliminating Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons.
Already, Tokyo has dispatched six staffers, some of whom are SDF members, to the OPCW, and the government is looking into whether it will be possible to send them into Syria to actually help in the removal effort. The report suggested that the SDF members were personnel who had previously worked at OPCW.
Kyodo went on to report that, in response to the Syrian regime declaring its chemical weapon stockpiles last week, the Japanese Foreign and Defense Ministries were speeding up their preparations for Japan to assist in disposing of the Assad regime’s chemical weapon stockpiles in the event that Tokyo is asked to do so. This could include sending personnel into Syria, providing technical equipment like mobile destruction units, helping fund the campaign or some combination of all three.
During a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday, Abe once again said his government was committed to helping eliminate chemical weapons from Syria. News reports did not indicate if he outlined any specifics on how Tokyo would assist the OPCW.
The Japan Times reported last week that Prime Minister Abe will pledge an additional US$10 million to Syrian refugees during his speech at the UN General Assembly, bringing Japan’s total assistance to date to the refugees up to US$105 million. While meeting with Secretary-General Ban, Abe reportedly reiterated his administration’s desire to help relieve the refugee crisis, along with eliminating chemical weapons.
Japan has a long and complicated history with chemical weapons. Imperial Japanese forces used various kinds of chemical and biological weapons against Asians during WWII. After the war, some members of Unit 731, the notorious outfit responsible for Japan’s biological and chemical weapons, surrendered to the Soviet Union. Twelve leaders of Unit 731 were eventually tried and convicted (for their use of biological weapons) by Moscow at the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials. Other members of Unit 731 were captured by the United States, and later granted immunity by General Douglas MacArthur.
Japan has also been the victim of a chemical weapons attack. In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring hundreds of others.
Partially as a result of this history, Japan has been an active participant in the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention since it went into effect in 1997. For over a decade, Japan has been appointing SDF members to serve at the OPCW, including in the organization’s Inspectorate Division of the Technical Secretariat. The division helps carry out on-site inspections of state parties’ chemical stockpiles to ensure they’re complying in eliminating them.
Tokyo has also helped train personnel from developing states who are party to the Chemical Weapons Convention on how to safely eliminate their own stockpiles of chemical weapons. Since 2004, Japan has also provided industrial training to scientists from developing nations on chemical safety matters as part of the OPCW’s Associate Program. Japan has also spearheaded an effort to eliminate the chemical weapons that imperial Japan abandoned in China after World War II.
Besides having the technical expertise to assist in the effort to remove Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles, as well as possessing some of the necessary equipment, Tokyo’s assistance in this campaign would make sense from a political standpoint. Although often considered a Western country, Japan does not have the colonial baggage in the Middle East that many of the European nations and the U.S.—from which much of the OPCW’s technical expertise derives—carry with them. Japanese members of an OPCW delegation might therefore be more palatable to the Syrian regime, which is eager to not be seen domestically as having capitulated to Western demands, while enjoying greater trust among the U.S. and EU than a country like Russia.
Some speculate, not without reason, that Japan’s potential participation in the removal of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles is not wholly driven by altruistic motives, however. Rather, the scheme would fit within Prime Minister Abe’s broader agenda of enhancing Japan’s global profile, and increasing the legitimacy of Japan’s Self Defense Forces. As Stratfor, a private intelligence firm, explained in a research note this week:
“Deploying a Japanese team would show that Japanese Self-Defense Forces are positively engaged in upholding international peace and stability in cooperation with other nations. This type of action helps distinguish Japan's accelerating military normalization from the country's historical militarism — an important diplomatic consideration, especially in the Asia Pacific region.”
Whatever the reason, the OPCW will need all the help it can get.