(Sankei: January 13, 2016 – p. 3)
Defense Minister Gen Nakatani told the press on Jan. 12 that he will order the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) to take a seaborne patrolling action in the event that Chinese naval ships sail into territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands (Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture). “When police or the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) is having difficulty handling a situation,” Nakatani emphasized, “the basic rule is that the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) will respond to the situation.” A seaborne patrolling action is different from “defense operations,” in which the SDF responds to an “emergency situation. Although there are limitations on the use of weapons, the SDF is allowed to fire warning shots for a seaborne patrolling action. In the past, the government has ordered the SDF to take seaborne patrolling actions in three cases: the 1999 North Korean spy ship incident; the 2004 intrusion into Japan’s territorial waters by a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine; and the 2009 anti-piracy mission in the waters off Somalia.
China is swiftly becoming increasingly active in the East China Sea and the airspace over the ocean. In November and December last year, a Chinese Navy intelligence ship repeatedly travelled back and forth outside the contiguous zone south of the Senkaku Islands and off the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture. How should Japan respond to such situations?
Last May the government implemented a new system for making Cabinet decisions in which ministers can give their consent over the telephone. The new system allows the government to swiftly order the SDF to take seaborne patrolling actions or conduct public security operations in three possible scenarios: 1) an armed foreign group unlawfully landing on an isolated island and occupying it; 2) a foreign warship intruding into Japan’s territorial waters; and 3) a Japanese civilian vessel coming under attack in international waters.
Based on these preparations, Nakatani made his remarks on Jan. 12 regarding the possibility of his ordering a seaborne patrolling action to keep China in check.
The three scenarios are not “emergency situations” for which the government would order the SDF to implement defense operations, but they go beyond the capabilities of the police or the JCG, which are responsible for maintaining public security. The scenarios are known as “gray zone situations.” The government regards the three scenarios as “gaps” in security. In the event that such a contingency takes place at midnight or before dawn, the current round-robin Cabinet decision may not work quickly enough if some ministers are away from Tokyo and the situation could become more serious while ministers are being summoned for a Cabinet decision. Therefore, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe implemented the telephone consent system.
Some lawmakers voiced doubts about the telephone method. “Will the telephone consent work quickly enough? Why didn’t the government create a legal framework?,” questioned former Vice Defense Minister Akihisa Nagashima of the Democratic Party of Japan in the special committee for the security legislation in the House of Representatives last May.
Abe emphasized, “If we can make a Cabinet decision swiftly, there won’t be a problem.” But the use of weapons is limited in the SDF’s public security operations and seaborne patrolling actions. There are still questions over how the government will respond to an armed group that may go beyond the capabilities of police organizations.
One reason the government did not create a legal framework was the reluctance of the junior coalition partner Komeito party, which was wary of expanding the SDF’s roles. In addition, the turf-conscious police and JCG were concerned that the government might reduce their roles.
The SDF assumes that gray-zone situations are likely to occur. In order to counter such situations, it is essential to create a legal basis for the SDF’s response and give the organization the authority to use firearms. Some people are also calling for expanding the JCG’s roles.
The passage of the security legislation has significantly improved Japan’s legal framework for defense. However, there are still “gaps” that need to be filled. (Slightly Abridged)