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SDF Shows Its Capabilities in the Philippines

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MSDF sets off to the Philippines (Defense Ministry)

By Alex Calvo

SNA (Tokyo) — Recent news from Southeast Asia has been dominated by maritime conflicts, and then trade negotiations in second place. However, nature has once again reminded us all that it is not just conflicts among nations that threaten the life and property of citizens. The reminder has come in the shape of a terrible typhoon, known as Haiyan or Yolanda.

While testing the response capabilities of Philippine government, this natural disaster has prompted a quick and significant reaction by other nations, fueled by a mixture of humanitarian concerns, eagerness to reinforce soft power, and a desire to send a message concerning their logistical capabilities and interoperability.

Japan has been one of the naval powers at the forefront of these efforts, and the resulting deployment of more than 1,000 personnel, together with naval and air assets, is serving not only to reinforce bilateral relations with Manila but to display Japanese technology, disaster-response capabilities, logistical power, interoperability with allies, and to promote the image of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) at home and abroad.

Tokyo’s visibility has been enhanced by the relative absence of China.

As happened with the fisheries negotiations with Taiwan and the agreement with Russia to launch regular 2+2 ministerial exchanges, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quick to realize the need to act promptly and decisively. This was no time for bureaucratic infighting, committee meetings, or consensus building. At stake were not only the thousands of lives in danger in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan / Yolanda, but also Japan’s prestige as a responsible stakeholder in the international system. It also reaffirmed the supposedly benign nature of its normalization as a military power.

The recently-concluded amphibious drills had shown the SDF’s teeth, now it was time to display their humanitarian assistance capabilities. On November 13, Abe issued a statement where he made it clear that, “The hardship of the destruction from a major catastrophe is not simply someone else’s problem” and confirmed his “decision to dispatch the Self-Defense Forces to the Philippines at a scale of approximately 1,000 members,” stressing that it was “Japan’s largest relief dispatch in history.” The final number is likely to be closer to 1,200.

According to Jiji Press, Japan is also deploying three naval ships “and an unspecified number of aircraft.” A Defense Ministry spokesman later provided further details, saying that a total of ten planes had been sent to the disaster-struck nation – seven C-130 transport planes, two KC-767 tanker planes, and one U-4 multi-purpose support aircraft.

The first wave consisted of fifty members of the SDF, tasked with assisting in medical support and transport operations following Manila’s request for assistance. They traveled to Tacloban, a devastated city which happens to be the first provincial capital to be retaken by US General Douglas MacArthur’s troops from the Japanese forces in 1944.

This historical factor has not been lost on many commentators, some of whom have stressed that this was a “second Battle of Leyte”; this time with Japanese, US, and Philippine forces fighting, not each other, but side-by-side against the destruction meted out by nature.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga explained that the Philippine government had formally requested Tokyo dispatch SDF units for relief activities, while Defense Ministry sources added that, based on the request, the Japanese government had decided to deploy three warships, three CH-47 helicopters, and one C-130 transport airplane. These three ships were the 13,950-ton destroyer Ise, the 8,900-ton amphibious warfare vessel Osumi, and the 8,100-ton supply vessel Towada.

Concerning financial aid, the original figure announced by Tokyo and reported by different media outlets, was US$10 million. However, this was later raised to more than US$50 million and could end up being much larger still. Overall, Japan has emerged as a key actor in humanitarian operations and financial support for the Philippines.

Tokyo’s role looms even larger when one takes into account Beijing’s relative absence. China’s initial offer of US$100,000 dollars was seen as an insult by many Filipinos, and although it deployed a hospital ship, the Chinese campaign to raise the country’s humanitarian profile and soft power seems to have taken a clear hit. This was a missed opportunity for China to appear to Southeast Asia as a good neighbor.

The contrast with Japan is even greater when one takes into account that countries further afield like the United Kingdom have been quick to send their military, with the Royal Navy’s HMS Daring steaming full speed from Singapore. Writing for The Diplomat, James R. Holmes said that “China has made itself look small and petty, like a skinflint rather than a magnanimous power worthy of regional leadership.”

In the social media, Filipino commentators were quick to welcome Japanese assistance, together with that of other nations. In the case of Japan, however, given that the Philippines were occupied by the Imperial Army and Navy during the Pacific War, positive comments were even more significant.

While Tokyo is finding it very difficult to get South Korea to accept its normalization as a military power (despite Seoul’s reliance on rear-echelon Japanese support for US forward-deployed forces in the Peninsula), Japan is finding it much easier to convince Philippine leaders and citizens that it is in their national security interest to see the SDF become stronger. In any case, it is clear that Tokyo was careful to stress in its public announcements that any deployment negotiated with Manila would only take place after the green light had been secured from Philippine government authorities.

While this may seem obvious, Tokyo was particularly keen to stress it, perhaps with an eye to South Korean suspicions that in the event of a crisis SDF units may deploy to the Peninsula without prior consent from Seoul. Although Japanese leaders and experts rule this out, they are keenly aware of South Korean suspicions and of the resulting need to stress that Japanese deployments abroad, whatever their nature, are to take place only following a request by the host state.

InterAksyon.com, the online news portal of the Philippine TV5 radio and TV station, reported that Japan’s Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry had explained that the SDF would be using “Leyte Island and its surrounding waters” as “the primary base,” while also deploying from the vessels to the hard-hit city of Tacloban.

Logistics is one of the keys to humanitarian assistance in these cases. Some Filipino social media outlets said that Manila had not immediately deployed troops because it was impossible to feed and sustain them in the field due to an insufficient transportation capacity. In the case of the SDF, Defense Ministry sources said that the initial deployment relied on their Osprey, “their first official deployment outside of Okinawa,” together with “regular helicopters.”

The Osprey has been controversial due to its accident record, and some experts view it with mistrust. Pol Molas, a naval analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies of Catalonia, considers them to be “expensive and mechanically troublesome.” It remains to be seen whether a successful contribution to operations in the Philippines may help to improve their image.

Japanese troops face a number of challenges. Chief among them is the need to reach remote areas and isolated pockets of population. This requires an intensive deployment of aerial and naval craft, not just to take first responders to the affected areas, but to sustain them logistically and to secure a steady stream of drinking water, fuel, food, medicines, and other supplies. They also have to contend with the rampant spread of infectious diseases in the area. Last, but not least, there is the possibility of civil unrest and other “security risks to troops and rescue workers.”

At a media briefing, Shigeru Iwasaki, chief of the SDF’s Joint Staff, said, “What we are watching most carefully is the local security situation.” He added, “We will gather information not only from the Philippine government, but also from US military troops who are working there, so we will be able to secure the safety of our personnel.”

Fortunately, nearly half of the 600 inmates to have escaped from Leyte Provincial Jail are reported to have returned and surrendered.

Also, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said on November 15 that Japanese troops would make an effort to increase the supply of fuel, the lack of which had made it difficult for first responders to reach isolated areas by land. This lack of fuel had also made it difficult to police them. Onodera explained that two MSDF transport vessels were taking helicopters and supplies at Hiroshima’s Kure naval base.

Japan is fortunate to count on some Tagalog speakers, well acquainted with the terrain, among the personnel to be deployed. Chief among them is Shigehiro Matsuda, a deputy team leader of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) contingent, who knows the local language, having studied at the University of the Philippines in Diliman.

Matsuda has been quoted as saying, “I guess we can’t choose not to come here, not to help our Filipino friends.”

Japanese individuals, NGOs, and companies also reacted to the humanitarian crisis in the Philippines. Just to mention one example, Softbank announced that it would be donating 10 yen for every “Like” on the relevant Facebook post. The company added, “We also donate 1% of sales of our international prepaid “Kokusai Card” sold from November 15 to the end of January 2014, explaining that the card is often used by Filipino residents in Japan.

To conclude, we could say that Japan has been quick to react to the exceptionally destructive typhoon, which has left in its wake a trail of death and destruction, including multiple threats from epidemics to starvation. There is also a very difficult security situation compounded by the lack of mobility of security forces and a jailbreak.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has appeared as a decisive leader, quick to grasp the significance of the situation and the need for speed. The SDF are displaying an impressive array of capabilities and a solid degree of interoperability, and not just with American forces.

Cooperation with London, and a similar approach by both powers, is further evidence of increasingly tight relations.

Coming hot on the heels of a successful set of amphibious drills, the humanitarian deployment to the Philippines could contribute to Tokyo’s deterrence strategy by further reinforcing the perception that the country is an advanced military power, despite some legal and constitutional restrictions. It could also help to deepen the bilateral relationship with the Philippines, a country scheduled to receive ten patrol boats from Japan and which appears a nation on whose tighter coordination Japan is relying in order to reinforce its own national security.

Alex Calvo is a Professor of International Relations and International Law, European University in Barcelona, and Guest Professor at Nagoya University.

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