Japan’s Defense Strategy Guidelines

Peacebuilding Without Japanese Deployments


Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have not been deployed on a peacekeeping mission since 2017, when an SDF contingent was withdrawn from South Sudan. Going forward, what can Japan do to contribute to peacebuilding efforts?

Japan’s national defense guidelines, revised every five years, are expected to call in their next version for maintaining superiority in emerging key areas like cyberspace and outer space. Although I cannot accurately predict the details of the upcoming guidelines, I would like to offer insights into some pertinent issues from my perspective as a specialist in international peace cooperation.

UN Peacekeeping Missions Stall

Since the enactment of the Act on Cooperation with United Nations Peacekeeping Operations in 1992, one of the highlights of the Self-Defense Forces’ activities has been participation, albeit on a limited scale, in international peace cooperation, with the deployment of Ground Self-Defense Force civil engineering corps in Cambodia, East Timor, Haiti, and South Sudan. In addition to these activities, under the Act on Special Measures Concerning Humanitarian Relief and Reconstruction Work and Security Assistance in Iraq, the SDF was dispatched to Iraq in 2003 to assist the US-led reconstruction of the country. Revision of the Self Defense Forces Act in 2007 added international peacekeeping cooperation to the SDF’s basic duties. However, no personnel have been dispatched on PKO operations since the 2017 withdrawal of a GSDF unit partway through a difficult UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, a move that had the international community scratching its collective head.

The United Nations’ overall PKO budget has shrunk, and personnel levels are being cut. And it is the countries with experienced military forces that have historically been most willing to do the job that are receiving the most preferential treatment when it comes to these drawdowns. In an environment like this, it is extraordinarily difficult for a country like Japan to offer to take part in new operations while also stating “we won’t have any part of missions like that; we won’t do this sort of thing; we will only perform this smaller set of duties.”

Japan is also in a difficult position. Passage of military legislation in 2015 to allow the SDF to participate in foreign conflicts under the proviso of collective self-defense for allies seems to have had the unintended effect of strengthening public opposition to SDF overseas deployments. This sentiment was further reinforced during the 2017 tenure of Defense Minister Inada Tomomi, who was embroiled in a controversy over a cover-up of SDF internal records, with Diet deliberations thrown into an uproar over whether the GSDF’s daily logs actually contained wording to the effect that personnel were in fact stationed in a war zone.

Japan formerly contributed 20% of the United Nations’ budget. As the second-largest contributor, it could conceivably have had a say in where its peacekeeping contingents would be dispatched. But today, Japan’s contribution is less than 10% of the UN’s budget, and it trails behind China in third place. Meanwhile, China, a UN Security Council member, ranks eleventh in PKO activities, with 2,500 personnel taking part. It continues to play an important PKO role, engaging in some of the riskiest peacekeeping missions, such as in Mali, which have even cost Chinese peacekeepers’ lives.

The Report on Improving the Security of UN Peacekeepers (the “Cruz Report,” compiled by Brazil’s Lieutenant General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz), attracted extensive comment following its late 2017 release by the Fifth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. Advocating “more proactive and preemptive” actions, the report has been frequently quoted by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The Cruz Report, which also explicitly states that no special requests by dispatching countries will be entertained, puts Japan’s SDF in a distinctly unfavorable position and makes future SDF participation in PKO an increasingly remote possibility.


Under the circumstances, there are only two possible scenarios. One is to lay the groundwork to enable the SDF to participate in UN peacekeeping activities under the same conditions as other countries. This, however, would necessitate amending the 1992 UN Peacekeeping Cooperation Act and possibly even the Constitution.

The other is to shift course and contribute in ways that do not require boots on the ground: international peacebuilding in the civil sector comes to mind. This alternative is less desirable, as it would deprive SDF members of the opportunity to systematically acquire peacekeeping experience and interact with other militaries, experience they could gain if deployed on site. Participating in international activities would be a valuable asset for SDF members, and personally I feel it is highly regrettable to decide that a personnel deployment is most likely off the table. Realistically, however, Japan may have no other choice. Short of sending a peacekeeping contingent, how can it remain involved in and benefit from international peacebuilding activities?

Nations participate in international peacebuilding for a number of reasons related to national interest: participation contributes to the international community and enhances their own prestige, creates a pool of people with a broad range of experience working with other countries toward a shared objective, and gives them influence in the countries they have assisted.

This is usually accomplished by deploying military personnel, but if that is not possible, the goals must be reached by other means. Contributions to international peacebuilding can be made in three ways: through technology, capacity building, and partnerships. Where Japan’s contributions to international peacebuilding are concerned, I believe that the National Defense Program Guidelines should highlight the importance of these three areas.

Dispatch Technologists to Core Departments

Japan’s economic and technological prowess may have waned, but frankly, international peacebuilding activities do not require countries to be among the heaviest investors in bleeding-edge technology, putting their most sophisticated, classified tech to work in the field. It is unlikely that a superpower could put the full might of its cutting-edge military technology to use in order to become a leader in international peacebuilding. If that is the case, Japan still maintains a comparative technological advantage in these areas.

With logistics as the key component, Japan is now trying to remain involved in UN peacekeeping operations based on experience gained through deploying its civil engineering corps. That is all well and good, but the nation’s brief could expand to include unmanned aerial vehicles such as drones. Although it was quite a while ago, the SDF contingent in Iraq used drones. Technologies should be developed to, for example, use sophisticated unmanned aircraft to gather information via satellite transmission. This would entail dispatching analyst personnel to a critical function like the UN’s Joint Mission Analysis Center, which collects and analyzes data.

In addition, given that peacekeeping personnel are increasingly subject to attack by outside forces, Japan could provide valuable help in the form of emergency medical teams, intelligence-gathering using drones and other methods, transportation, and communications. At any rate, dispatching skilled personnel to departments handling intelligence is important for actively boosting Japan’s presence in international peacebuilding at a time when no SDF units are being dispatched for PKO activities. Japan’s technology can provide an opening for placing personnel in core departments.

Capacity Building through PKO Training Centers

Supporting capacity building is a prime strategic concept in contemporary international peacebuilding, but prospects for success diminish unless that support is respectful of ownership and appropriately positioned. Fortunately, Japan has been providing support for PKO training centers in several African countries for the past decade. This presents a valuable opportunity for re-engagement.

Japan has worked with Egypt’s Cairo Regional Center for Training on Conflict Resolution and Peacekeeping in Africa, the International Peace Support Training Center in Kenya, the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center in Ghana, and Nigeria’s Center for Strategic Research and Studies. These organizations are important gateways for Japanese contributions to capacity building in Africa, and they should be used as intermediaries for actively promoting interpersonal relations and exchanging information, and to provide equipment and discuss policy.

Closer Relations with African Regional Organizations

“Partnership” is a keyword that characterizes today’s international peacebuilding activities. All PKO activities in Africa, meaning all such activities launched in the twenty-first century—and all major PKO undertakings in progress today, with the sole exception of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—are being conducted together with the African Union or sub-regional organizations like the Economic Community of West African States, the Southern African Development Community, and the Inter Governmental Authority on Development.

As the 2015 Secretary General’s Report makes clear, this kind of partnership peacekeeping is no longer the exception but has become commonplace(*1). If Japan elects to stop participating in peacekeeping operations, its only remaining choice is to work with African regional organizations partnering with the UN and to establish a presence by supporting those organizations from the sidelines.

Unusually in today’s world, Japan’s geographical location in northeastern Asia excludes it from regional organizations actually involved in partnership peacekeeping. This is a major handicap when it comes to Japan broadening its involvement in international peacebuilding activities. The only alternative is to strengthen connections with African regional organizations involved in the activities that Japan wishes to participate in.

For example, to gain a foothold enabling Japanese personnel to gain experience in international peacebuilding, Japan should start by actively supporting the activities of Africa’s regional and sub-regional organizations. It should also strengthen its framework for cooperating with other governments by offering active, multilateral support for the diplomatic efforts of these entities. Since the SDF has a base in Djibouti, it could conceivably support the African Union’s activities in Somalia.

Japan could also work to systematically position the creation of crossregional partnerships as part of an Indo-Pacific strategy. It should also boost its Indo-Pacific strategy by placing its relations with Africa within the context of that strategy and strengthening ties with Africa through international peacebuilding activities. This highlights the importance of reinforcing ties with regional and sub-regional organizations in Africa for this purpose.

Incorporating New Approaches in the Guidelines

Now that Japan is no longer dispatching peacekeeping personnel, I am suggesting that the National Defense Program Guidelines should focus on technology, capacity building, and partnerships to contribute to international peacebuilding. A new approach is needed. Rather than sweeping the current situation under the rug, the revised Guidelines should adopt a policy view that allows for the development of practical, achievable participation in international peacebuilding activities by the SDF.

(Originally published in Japanese on November 20, 2018. Banner photo: A GSDF member at the flag handover ceremony in Tokyo at the conclusion of the GSDF’s PKO mission in South Sudan on May 30, 2017. The beret insignia shows the United Nations crest. © Jiji.)

(*1) ^ Secretary-General’s Report “Partnering for Peace: Moving towards Partnership Peacekeeping,” UN Document S/2015/229, 1 April 2015, paragraph 57.

Self-Defense Forces PKO defense peacebuilding