On May 27, the deployment of the Japan Self-Defense Force (SDF) engineering unit to South Sudan ceremoniously concluded when the last 40 members of the reconstruction team returned home with family and media waiting. It represented the end of a five year commitment of engineering units in support of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
At its peak, the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) had deployed up to 350 troops to the capital city of Juba for peacekeeping operations (PKO), and there were even discussions of expanding the mission to two other locations within the southern portions of the country. However, security conditions started to deteriorate, which not only kept the SDF in Juba, but raised concerns back in Japan that a ceasefire condition — a self-imposed prerequisite for SDF involvement in UN PKO — no longer existed.
Eventually, amidst media fervor over leaked defense ministry documents suggesting the existence of combat in the vicinity of SDF operations, the Abe cabinet decided in March of this year that the engineering mission in South Sudan had achieved all of its aims and would end by May. While a handful of SDF officers remain in the UNMISS headquarters to support information coordination, the main contingent has returned, effectively ending this chapter of Japanese PKO.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
With the end of this five year operation, the question arises of what significance the deployment carried. Certainly, there was the direct infrastructure support to the fledgling country of South Sudan and the tangible commitment to UN missions overseas. In sum, Japan deployed 3,854 troops, built 210 kilometers of roads, completed about 500,000 square meters in site preparations, and constructed 94 facilities — all of which was notably more than Japan’s previous PKO deployments.
However, the SDF dispatch to South Sudan also provided insight into changes to Japanese security practice, particularly with regard to operating areas, cooperation with foreign militaries (namely South Korea), and new authorities granted after the reinterpretation of the constitution in July 2014 and the implementation of the new Peace and Security Legislation in March 2016. As such, while the South Sudanese and UN Peacekeeping officials will remember the deployment for Japan’s direct contributions to the African nation, strategists, policymakers, and observers should remember three points of significance from the SDF’s commitment to UNMISS: (1) establishment of new precedents for PKO and other SDF operations; (2) the transfer of small arms ammunition to South Korean peacekeepers; and (3) the introduction of new protection authorities (the so-called kaketsuke-keigo) — each of which had or continue to have implications on broader Japanese security practice.
Japanese support to the UN mission in Sudan began in 2008 and evolved over time. Originally, Japan dispatched two SDF staff officers to the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) to support information coordination. When the nation split in 2011, the UN decided to increase its commitment to ensure the new country’s viability, and Japan followed suit, offering a GSDF reconstruction team to provide infrastructure support. GSDF engineer units began deploying to South Sudan in January 2012 to build roads, accomplish drainage construction, lay foundation, and take part in other infrastructure improvement projects. Of course, all of these functions had precedent and were somewhat standard fare among Japanese PKO commitments — that is, until the security situation began to deteriorate within South Sudan in December 2013.
The resurgence of conflict in late 2013 had a significant impact on the SDF deployment. In December 2013, substantial clashes erupted throughout the country following a schism between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, resulting in armed conflict and a large number of internally displaced persons (IDPs). From a functional standpoint, this resulted in expanded SDF responsibilities including site preparation and reinforcement of UN evacuation and medical facilities meant specifically for IDP services. This disorder also led to key decisions that would later serve as the three points of significance of the SDF deployment to South Sudan.
Establishment of New Precedents for PKO and SDF Operations
When conflict erupted throughout South Sudan in 2013, it could have been grounds for the Japanese government to pull the GSDF out of the country — after all, the first condition for SDF involvement in PKO states that a ceasefire must be in place. It would be difficult to argue that a ceasefire condition truly existed in South Sudan after 2013, as independent research estimates that in the period between December 2013 and June 2017, fighting in the country (some of it in Juba itself) consumed over 50,000 lives and displaced 1.6 million people. Nevertheless, that did not deter the Abe administration. While the administration halted its plans to expand operations, it decided to keep the troops in South Sudan, noting that while conflict was taking place elsewhere in the country, the area of responsibility for the GSDF was secure and stable. The only line in the sand was drawn when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested in early 2017 that he would resign if any SDF peacekeepers were killed in action, in effect identifying that the administration’s threshold would be immediate threat to SDF livelihood.
The decision to stay has important implications for Japanese security practice, which relies heavily on precedent, whether it is policy declared in Diet interpellations, past actions taken by the SDF, or others. The continued deployment of the GSDF engineering units to South Sudan in spite of increased conflict pushed the boundaries of geographical and operational limitations of the SDF; specifically, with regard to the “five conditions” under Japan’s PKO law and more broadly with the definition of what is considered the “combat area.” Under strict interpretations of the PKO law, the GSDF probably should have pulled out of South Sudan with the resumption of conflict in 2013, especially when it reached Juba. However, the decision to stay highlighted a different interpretation of the requirement.
Meanwhile, the term “combat area” is important since much of the provisions of the 2015 Peace and Security legislation depend on its definition. In the past, it was a designated area that was altogether off-limits for SDF activity, but this changed under the new legislation. Why is that change significant? Here are some other SDF operations that rely on the definition of combat area: search and rescue; logistics support; rescue of Japanese nationals overseas; transfer of Japanese nationals overseas (what many other nations refer to as Noncombatant Evacuation Operations, or NEO); ship inspection operations; and asset protection missions, among others. None of those are permitted to occur within a combat area unless Japan itself is directly under armed attack, which means that any precedent that defines the combat area has far reaching implications for the types and locations of SDF missions outside of Japan.
Ultimately, the deployment to South Sudan highlights two new precedents. First, for Japanese PKO it showed that as long as the SDF enters when a formal ceasefire is in place, the operation can remain viable unless it is determined that the SDF is operating within a combat area. Second and more broadly, the mission in South Sudan highlighted that the non-combat area (i.e. where the SDF can operate) can be significantly close to the thick of the conflict, provided there is not an immediate and enduring threat of SDF loss of life. These two precedents tell us that (1) although there will likely continue to be strict, political hurdles to enabling deployment of SDF to an overseas operating area, once they are there, flexibility with regard to risk increases significantly; and (2) the proximity to conflict will not affect operations as long as there is not direct risk of loss of SDF life. These are both important planning factors when considering how and where the Japan SDF will be allowed to operate as well as the operational flexibility they will have when they get there.
Provision of Ammunition to South Korean Peacekeepers
As the situation deteriorated in South Sudan in December 2013, South Korean peacekeepers found themselves under fire in the city of Bor. Anti-government separatists seized the city on December 19, and by December 22, the Koreans had expended most of their small arms ammunition. Desperately needing resupply, the South Korean unit commander reached out to the nearest contingent that had compatible ammunition available: the Japan GSDF in Juba. Shortly after the Japanese commander received the request from the Koreans, he received the same request from UNMISS Headquarters, and about 16 hours later, the Korean government delivered a formal request to the Japanese government. Japanese decision-makers wanted to act, but there was no precedent for provision of ammunition. In fact, if the Japanese commander had provided the ammunition to the Koreans and they in turn used it in combat, it could have constituted a violation of Japan’s “Three Principles on Arms Exports” (which were still in effect until April 1, 2014). The decision to provide ammunition could not come lightly.
By mid-day on December 23, Japan’s newly established National Security Council met to deliberate the matter, ultimately concluding that the ammunition should be provided. Less than two hours after the NSC decision, the Japanese government delivered 10,000 rounds of ammunition to UNMISS authorities, who then transported it to Bor. How did the Japanese government justify this provision of ammunition? They classified it as “Contribution in Kind,” an authorized activity which allows for Japan to provide essential items to UN PKO missions — “essential items” typically being reserved to five basic items necessary for the survival of afflicted people: tents, blankets, sleeping mats, jerry cans, and plastic sheets. In the end, this decision had four major impacts on Japanese security practice.
First, it highlighted the viability of the National Security Council for operational decisions as well as the administration’s continued desire to make those types of decisions at senior levels of government. The NSC was authorized under law in early December 2013, and the first meeting of the council was held on December 4. The events in South Sudan drove the NSC to convene just two and a half weeks later to influence a major operational decision, in turn serving to validate the NSC’s fledgling authorities. This also helped cement the NSC’s status in security decision-making within the administration, which would be important for a number of different interagency security coordination activities that would follow.
The decision to provide ammunition was also important as it offered a modicum of cooperation with the South Korean military during a period when strategic relationships were strained by historical/legacy issues. Just a year prior, the Koreans had walked out on the signing of the bilateral General Sharing of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), and at the time, neither side was certain of how to proceed beyond political hurdles to satisfy real security requirements. While the overall impact of this one-time provision of ammunition is difficult to measure, the Abe administration did reveal in Diet interpellations in January 2014 that the desire to improve relations with South Korea was among the chief considerations for its decision. Truly, the provision of ammunition was a concrete step that highlighted Japan’s willingness to support South Korea and represented cooperation between the SDF and South Korean military. This action helped shift the focus of bilateral relations toward increasing security cooperation, a move that has enjoyed steady progress ever since.
Third, this decision highlighted the type of flexibility that the Japanese government can exercise on security matters. The bureaucratic, positive-list approach to security is cumbersome, but in this time of urgency where the Korean soldiers needed ammunition as soon as possible, the government was able to turn around and make a decision that would put ammunition in the hands of Korean peacekeepers in about 24 hours, and they did it by using a legal provision traditionally meant for tents and jerry cans. What this means for Japanese security practice is that the bureaucratic approach to authorities and allowances is still firmly in place, but that the government is willing and able to find workarounds if the demand is high enough and it meets Japan’s interests. This should be an important signal to observers and decision-makers concerned with Japan’s bureaucratic hurdles in times of crisis or contingency that enough political will can serve to surmount those obstacles.
Introduction of New Protection Authorities
Although most observers focused on Collective Self-Defense (CSD) authorities related to the July 1, 2014 reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, the reinterpretation also included provisions for protection authorities short of CSD that remain important and relevant for SDF interoperability with foreign partners; in this case, the so-called kaketsuke-keigo, or ability to come to the aid of geographically separated persons. The implementing legislation (Japan’s 2015 “Peace and Security Legislation”) for the constitutional reinterpretation came into effect in March 2016, and in the following August, the troops comprising the 11th rotation to South Sudan began training on those new authorities. After reviewing legal parameters and new operational codes-of-conduct, the unit conducted live-fire exercises in September and continued their preparation until heading to Africa in November 2016. Their deployment followed a Cabinet Decision on November 15 that formally authorized the use of kaketsuke-keigo authorities.
The actual kaketsukei-keigo authorities themselves are somewhat limited, but they still represent important progress. Yes, the SDF in South Sudan could have come to the aid of others who were under attack, but as a third resort after exhausting South Sudanese Law Enforcement and UNMISS Peacekeeping Forces options. Even if the SDF were to respond, they would only have had the authority to pacify the attack or hold off attackers until they and those they were trying to protect could have retreated. However strict that may sound, one should not ignore the ultimate significance that for the first time in postwar history, the Japan SDF executed an overseas operation where they had the authorities to come to the protection of someone other than themselves. The new authorities, though limited in scope, ultimately represent a step in the right direction.
From the implementation of these authorities, certain takeaways are highlighted. First, the Japanese government will continue take a deliberate, measured approach to implementing the 2015 Peace and Security Legislation, taking time to train and orient the SDF to new authorities and ensuring senior levels of government are involved in decision-making. Kaketsuke-keigo was the first new authority instituted from the legislation, and it took eleven months of operational policy development and four months of SDF training before the units were granted the authorities by Cabinet decision. As evidence that this serves as the new model for implementation, the Japanese government applied this same deliberateness to introduction of asset protection authorities, which grants similar protection rules to SDF members who may protect foreign forces supporting the defense of Japan. The first ship-to-ship asset protection mission took place in May 2017, a total of 20 months after the passage of the legislation. This pattern of deliberate implementation will apply to all other new authorities under Japan’s 2015 security laws, but it does show that implementation is moving forward.
Kaketsuke-keigo authorities also show Japan’s willingness to be a more able partner in international operations. The ability to protect others is important for trust, interoperability, and operational flexibility. While the SDF will have to continue normalizing protection authorities, it will ultimately have far-reaching impacts on SDF operations. For 60 years, the SDF could not use weapons to protect other militaries — certainly not on foreign soil — and that impacted everything from training and exercises to planning and operations. Of course, the deployment of the GSDF with new authorities signaled a change, and normalization of the concept that Japan can protect foreign partners will support changes to organizational culture and planning mindsets, both of which will have much further reaching implications.
At first glance, the deployment of GSDF engineers to South Sudan seems standard fare, but in reality, the five years spent in the African nation proved to be ground-breaking for several aspects of Japanese security practice. New precedents are in place that support SDF flexibility once in a deployed area. Provision of ammunition to the South Koreans was an important positive step in a relationship that had experienced a political downturn, and the action highlighted both the viability of Japan’s new NSC and its ability to overcome bureaucratic hurdles in times of crisis. Finally, the introduction of new protection authorities broke the seal on the 2014 constitutional reinterpretation and 2015 Peace and Security Legislation. Although the process of introducing those authorities showed that implementation will continue to be measured and deliberate, the significance of SDF members finally being able to protect others in situations outside of a strictly defense of Japan scenario cannot be understated. All of these items comprised a PKO deployment that was significant both for the direct contributions to a new member-state of the international community and for the future of the Japan SDF.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the former Deputy Chief of Government Relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces, Japan, where he was part of the team that drafted the new 2015 Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation. Notably, he led the working group responsible for implementation of the Alliance Coordination Mechanism and served as the lead bilateral negotiator for Mutual Asset Protection policies. Michael is also a graduated Mansfield and East-West Center Fellow and a military veteran with two tours to Afghanistan.