Members of Japan’s ground forces reportedly will participate in an international joint military exercise for the first time — a move that signals a further shift towards a more assertive role in the region for an important U.S. ally.
Jane’s Defense Weekly reported in its Friday edition that Japan’s Ground Self Defense Forces (GSDF), or army, will send a small number of personnel to take part in the Cobra Gold 2005 exercise, to be held in Thailand in May.
According to the U.S. Pacific Command, the annual exercise involving U.S. and Thai forces is the premier multilateral exercise in the Pacific. Singapore will also take part in this year’s two-week event.
Cobra Gold focuses on such areas as humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations, evacuation operations, and transnational threats such as terrorism and illicit narcotics.
In the aftermath of the tsunami, which caused havoc in Thailand and a number of other countries in the Indian Ocean region, the 2005 will emphasize disaster relief.
Japan does not officially have a military, and its Self Defense Forces’ activities are tightly restricted by the country’s war-renouncing constitution, drafted by the U.S. after Japan’s defeat in World War II.
To the unease of neighbors which bore the brunt of Imperial Japanese aggression last century, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s government has been edging towards a more meaningful security role in the region and beyond.
Last December, the government extended the deployment of non-combat troops to Iraq, where they have been helping in rehabilitation programs. Earlier this year, Japanese ships and troops were dispatched to Indonesia’s Aceh province to help in tsunami relief efforts, in what was Japan’s largest military operation since 1945.
The shift was evident when Japan in December approved changes to its defense policy, calling for the SDF to develop “multi-function, flexible defense capabilities” in response to modern-day threats such as terror attacks or missile strikes.
The new defense policy paper upset Beijing by identifying China and its military buildup, for the first time, as posing a regional risk.
In the months since, Japan was further annoyed China by agreeing to cooperate in U.S. ballistic missile defense initiatives which China opposes, and by issuing a joint statement with the U.S. – again for the first time – that referred to the China-Taiwan dispute.
Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a rebel province, slammed what it called interference in its domestic affairs.
Jane’s said Japan’s involvement in Cobra Gold, while small by comparison to Thailand’s 2,655 participants and 3,614 personnel from the U.S., was important symbolically.
“The initiative reinforces Japan’s switch to a willingness to utilize the SDF internationally as, outlined in its new defense policy paper.”
Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wants to revise the pacifist constitution by November, to coincide with the party’s 50th anniversary.
The prime minister hopes the changes will allow the SDF to play a bigger role in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations abroad.