Japan's security environment 'worse than it was in Cold War'

Japan's security environment 'worse than it was in Cold War'
Yoshifumi Hibako, a former chief of staff of the Ground Self-Defense Force.
PHOTO: Japan News/ANN

Diet deliberations on security-related bills have entered the critical stage. As threats to national security have diversified, the government and ruling parties are aiming to pass the legislation, the key to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's security policy, during the current Diet session.

The Yomiuri Shimbun asked an expert about the significance of the bills, which could become a turning point for the nation's security policy, as well as pending issues that need to be tackled. The following are excerpts from the interview with Yoshifumi Hibako, a former chief of staff of the Ground Self-Defence Force.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: During Diet debates, opposition parties have said the new security legislation will place Self-Defence Forces personnel at greater risk.

Hibako: SDF personnel are fully aware that they are engaged in duties with an inherent risk. They seek to be protective shields so that less risk is posed to the citizens of Japan.

With regard to the limited exercise of the right of collective self-defence, Japan is trying to present a robust posture that will prevent us from being challenged to go to war by further strengthening our alliance with the United States and other measures.

With this in mind, SDF personnel proudly conduct very tough training every day. I think opposing the security legislation on the grounds of risk to SDF personnel shows a lack of respect for and trust in the SDF.

However, if we are sincerely going to confront these risks, I think there should be more discussion about how to institutionally honour the SDF personnel who could, hypothetically, get killed or injured on an overseas dispatch and how we can support their bereaved families.

SDF personnel also face danger when they are dispatched to help after natural disasters. After the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, the Ground Self-Defence Force flew helicopters over Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to drop water on the crippled reactors. Such an operation was completely new to the GSDF.

At the time, I was the GSDF chief of staff and, on occasion, I thought to myself, "It's possible SDF personnel could die doing this." I want the government to honestly explain to the public that the SDF takes on these risks so that the entire nation doesn't have to.

Q: The security legislation will remove a major obstacle by allowing SDF personnel to use weapons while carrying out their duties on missions like UN peacekeeping operations.

A: Up to now, the biggest fear of an SDF commanding officer on the ground has been, "Even if we are in danger, we can't use our weapons until we have been shot at." Even if we were conducting joint operations with a foreign military unit that came under attack and asked us for help, we had to say, "Don't look to us." Allowing greater discretion on the ground by easing the restrictions on weapon use and enabling us to come to the aid of others could lower the risk to SDF personnel. I would like to give high marks to this change.

Q: The security environment surrounding Japan has been changing.

A: When I joined the SDF in the 1970s, our sole focus was on preparing for an attack by the Soviet Union. The Cold War order crumbled following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we entered an era in which terrorism transcends national borders. The United States no longer acts as "the world's policeman," and China and North Korea are expanding their military forces. I think the security environment surrounding Japan now is worse than it was during the Cold War.

China is behaving defiantly in the South China Sea. Can we rule out the possibility that China will someday declare that Okinotorishima "belongs to us" and start reclaiming territory around the island, or occupy it on the pretense of rescuing shipwrecked fishermen? In dealing with these so-called gray-zone situations, procedures for dispatching the SDF will be expedited, but our use of weapons will remain restricted. I want to see a little more debate on this point. I don't think we have time to waste on theological debates about whether the [existence of] SDF is constitutional or not.

Q. Public understanding will be crucial for any overseas dispatch of the SDF.

A: Public opinion polls in recent years have indicated there is greater understanding of the SDF and the role it plays. I think this is partly because the SDF personnel don't say much when they have been dispatched to help after a natural disaster or to deal with other situations, but rather they quietly go about their work.

I think problems could arise if people expect too much from the SDF. The current SDF would struggle to conduct a mission to rescue hostages, say for example, in an incident like the hostage crisis in Algeria in 2013. I don't think we have sufficient personnel or equipment and our nation doesn't have the information-gathering capabilities to handle something like that. Even when this new legislation comes into effect, limitations unique to Japan will remain on SDF activities. This is because we operate while strictly adhering to the Constitution. I would like the Japanese people to also be aware of this point.

Yoshifumi Hibako's profile

Hibako graduated from the National Defence Academy in 1974 and joined the Ground Self-Defence Force. After serving in posts including vice president at the academy and commanding general of the GSDF Middle Army, in March 2009 he was appointed the 32nd chief of staff of the GSDF. He left this post in August 2011 and has been an adviser for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. since April 2012. He was born in Fukuoka Prefecture and is 64.

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