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POLITICS: Japan Supports Ban on Cluster Bombs

Catherine Makino

TOKYO, Jun 8 2008 (IPS) - A dramatic decision to join a ban on most types of inhumane weapons was announced by Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda at an international conference attended by 110 nations in Dublin at the end of May. On the last day of the conference, the Japanese government, which had wavered, said it would support the ban.

Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. Credit: Temple University

Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. Credit: Temple University

The convention – to be put to a vote in Oslo in December – will require elimination of stockpiles of cluster munitions within eight years.

Japan had earlier asserted the world must reach a balance between security and humanitarian concerns. The Ministry of Defence and the Self-Defence Forces supported the use of cluster bombs, because they were a useful deterrent against the enemy. However, Fukuda waved aside these arguments and chose to support the treaty.

The only thing that held Japan back was how the treaty might affect military cooperation with the U.S. Japanese political leaders did not want it to result in the U.S. abandoning them.

India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and the U.S. did not attend the 12 days of negotiations in Dublin.

"Tokyo reversed its stance opposing the treaty because it permits signatory countries to maintain military cooperation with non-member nations," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. As the U.S. has not signed, this is a crucial provision that helped get Japan aboard. The other crucial provision is that the treaty excludes new, high- performance cluster bombs that are believed to have a low probability of remaining unexploded."

One of the reasons nations got together to sign this treaty is that cluster bombs release thousands of shiny bomblets – many of which do not explode – and children around the world have been maimed and killed having picked-up these ticking time bombs.

"Fukuda supported the ban because it was the right thing to do and he could do so with broad domestic political support, something he has not seen much of during his tenure," Kingston told IPS. His cabinet support rate is a dismal 28 percent, the lowest level since the start of his administration last September.

Japan has indicated that it will replace its existing stockpile with the new advanced versions, so this is not a total victory for the ban movement.

"Certainly a treaty signed by 110 nations will up the ante on cluster bomb producing and using nations, but I do not think it likely will significantly modify their stance to embrace the ban," Kingston told IPS.

It stands to reason that the non-signatory nations are all in the process of modernising their stockpiles and will rely more on the high performance cluster bombs that are less likely to have an adverse impact on civilian populations in war’s aftermath, according to Kingston. "However, many less developed nations with fewer resources will continue to use the older versions and this is a tragedy for everyone."

Japan’s constitution prevents the nation from waging aggressive wars and cluster bombs are aggressive weapons dropped over an adversary’s territory, according to Andrew Horvat, a well-known academic and former representative of the Asia Foundation. Since the end of WWII, successive Japanese governments have attempted with varying degrees of success to project an image of Japan as a "nation of peace."

Supporting the anti-cluster bomb treaty goes along with such past and present policy. Japan supported the ban on land mines in 1997. The country hesitated to sign the treaty because it considered land mines a necessary part of its ammunitions. Keizo Obuchi, who was the foreign minister at the time, said the treaty was necessary and the government finally agreed. As a result, Japan then put forward a plan to support land-mine victims and was praised internationally.

"Moreover, since it is the U.S. on which Japan relies for its security, it can let the U.S. worry about whether such a treaty is realistic or helpful or playing to the grandstands," Horvat says.

Japanese political leaders are always struggling to maintain a relationship with the U.S. that neither entraps Japan into wars the nation does not wish to support, nor results in the U.S. abandoning Japan, he noted.

Weston Konishi, Hitachi international affairs fellow at the council on Foreign Relations, believes there is little Tokyo can do to pressure Washington – or Beijing and Moscow for that matter – to sign onto the treaty.

The bottom line is that political leaders probably felt that Japan’s support of the ban on such weapons did not carry risk of U.S. abandonment of the country. At the same time, the vote for banning cluster bombs gave the government the opportunity to turn toward its detractors – those who would say that Japan is a U.S. lackey – and say that in fact Japan is reasonably independent of the U.S, Horvat explained to IPS.

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