The Yomiuri ShimbunJapan has not deployed any units for peacekeeping operations since last year, when a Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) engineering unit withdrew from the U.N. mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Koichi Isobe, former commanding general of the GSDF Eastern Army, recently spoke to The Yomiuri Shimbun about challenges for Japan’s future PKO deployments. The following is excerpted from the interview.
Koichi Isobe / Former Commanding General of GSDF Eastern Army
A year has passed since the Japanese government announced in March 2017 its decision to withdraw the GSDF engineering unit that had been deployed to the PKO mission in South Sudan. A personnel dispatch — currently numbering four people — to the mission’s headquarters has remained in place since the withdrawal was completed in May last year, but no SDF unit has been deployed to any overseas PKO mission since then.
Deciding to withdraw SDF troops deployed overseas is not an easy decision. When troops were withdrawn from the PKO mission in the Golan Heights, deteriorating security conditions had made it impossible for them to perform their duties, such as transporting supplies.
The government makes the final decision to withdraw SDF units in view of such factors as the security situation and the sustainability of the mission. I think that in the case of South Sudan, the government took into consideration not only the fact that the SDF unit had reached a certain point in its road-building work but also the situation on the ground, which was not necessarily stable.
A national consensus is required to deploy the SDF overseas. As time passes post-deployment, media coverage peters out and people lose interest. In fact, SDF members in South Sudan did arduous work while many Japanese people had no idea what they were doing on the ground.
Under these circumstances, if any of the deployed troops had become a victim, the government would have found itself subject to public outrage. It is important that prior to deploying SDF units for a PKO mission, the government clarify its overall objectives for the deployment by thoroughly conducting a national debate that can withstand such criticism.
In the future, it is important to closely look at the concrete duties of an SDF unit sent on a PKO mission before actually deploying it. Personnel should be sent on PKO missions that emphasize not the quantity of units but the quality, in a manner befitting the SDF.
In this regard, it is necessary to consider what could be called the “Three I’s.”
The first is “Initiative.” From the planning stages to the execution, it is vital to carry out the mission proactively. To that end, it is indispensable to prepare a comprehensive plan including an exit strategy for future withdrawal.
The second is being “Innovative.” The SDF has engaged in a variety of peacekeeping operations since the enactment in 1992 of the peacekeeping cooperation law, but none of them have been the same. The location, mission and unit composition have all been different. As equipment such as surveillance drones or new types of sensors are developed in a manner that improves the safety of our troops, we must make ceaseless efforts to actively introduce such technology, protect our troops and boost efficiency in achieving the mission.
The third is being “Interactive,” namely engaging in mutual assistance with other entities involved in the same PKO mission. One characteristic of the SDF and militaries is self-sufficiency, but participating in a PKO mission means acting alongside entities such as troops from other nations, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations. It would be unreasonable if the SDF tried to complete the mission on its own. It needs to be interactive.
I myself do not think Japan needs to go overboard in sending large numbers of personnel on PKO missions. Over the past more than 25 years, the requirements for PKO missions have transformed, and Japan is now urged to contribute to their quality rather than their quantity.
SDF missions on land, sea and in the air have greatly increased. Given the severe state of affairs surrounding Japan, its PKO deployment must be based on a decision reached from all viewpoints. It is crucial to maintain the balance between making contributions internationally and engaging in security and defense activities for our own territories.
Isobe has served in posts including commanding general of the GSDF Eastern Army. He was involved in peacekeeping missions in such places as Cambodia and the Golan Heights. He is currently a senior fellow at the Harvard University Asia Center.
(This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Tatsuya Fukumoto.)