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MSDF escorts U.S. Navy ship for 1st time under new security laws

A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier joined
a U.S. Navy vessel in the Pacific on Monday for the first protection
mission under security legislation that took effect last year, with
tension running high in the region over North Korea.

The mission, being conducted by the helicopter carrier Izumo,
Japan's largest postwar naval vessel, is apparently aimed at
demonstrating the robust Japan-U.S. security alliance and deterring
North Korea from conducting nuclear and missile tests.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has expanded the role of
the Self-Defense Forces through the new legislation to more actively
contribute to regional and global security issues, but the move has
been controversial in the country, where many people cherish the
pacifism embedded in the post-World War II Constitution.

"It is extremely significant to show that the deterrent force
and readiness of the Japan-U.S. security alliance are powerful,"
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters in
Turkmenistan, where he attended talks with his counterparts from
Central Asian countries.

The 19,500-ton Izumo, which is equipped with a large flight
deck, departed from Yokosuka base, southwest of Tokyo, on Monday
morning to join the U.S. Navy supply ship off the Boso Peninsula in
Chiba Prefecture, east of the capital. It is expected to sail for two
days in the Pacific toward waters off the Shikoku region in western
Japan.

The supply ship escorted by the Izumo is likely to refuel other
U.S. vessels currently deployed in waters near Japan in anticipation
of possible further missile test-firings by North Korea, as well as
ships sailing with the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Carl Vinson that
entered the Sea of Japan on Saturday.

Having left Singapore on April 8 to head to waters near the
Korean Peninsula, the Carl Vinson has actively engaged in drills with
Japan and South Korea. It conducted bilateral exercises with the MSDF
in the Philippine Sea on April 23 and in the Sea of Japan on Saturday.

Once the protection mission ends, the Izumo is expected to take
part in an international fleet review organized by the Singapore Navy
on May 15.

Under Japan's security legislation, which loosened constraints
imposed on SDF activities by the war-renouncing Constitution, SDF
personnel are allowed to guard vessels and weapons belonging to U.S.
forces when the latter are engaged in activities beneficial to the
defense of Japan.

The protection mission can be conducted in various situations,
including when the two countries are engaged in joint exercises or
monitoring and information-gathering activities related to North
Korean missile launches.

The MSDF personnel are allowed to use weapons to a certain
extent, but as the Constitution bans the "threat or use of force" by
Japan to settle international disputes, they must stay away from
areas where combat activities are taking place involving the armed
forces of a foreign country to which Japan is providing support.

Civic group members expressed concern that Japan's pacifism is
being eroded, while some people said such activities cannot be helped
in the current security situation.

"Whether directly or indirectly, it is clear that the mission
amounts to a threat, using force. It goes against the principle of
(the war-renouncing) Article 9 of the Constitution," said Itsuki
Kurosawa, a 36-year-old co-leader of a group of young lawyers who
oppose the security legislation.

Hideki Nitta, 54, who belongs to a different civic group,
doubted that the U.S. supply ship really needed protection.

"There was no substantial meaning (in the mission) because the
ship is sailing in safe areas. The government just wanted to put the
legislation into practice. In this way, I think Japan is heading
toward taking part in a U.S.-led war," he said.

Meanwhile, a 70-year-old housewife in Yokosuka, Kanagawa
Prefecture, said, "We don't know what North Korea will do and that
scares me. We have no way but to cooperate with the United States in
dealing with this issue."

Before the security legislation took effect in March last year,
the SDF were able to use weapons to defend Japanese vessels and
ammunition, but not the equipment owned by other countries.

The legislation has brought other changes to SDF activities,
including during U.N. peacekeeping operations.

A batch of Ground Self-Defense Force personnel had been ordered
to perform new responsibilities during a U.N. peacekeeping mission in
South Sudan, including rescuing U.N. staff under attack. But the
troops are leaving the African country in stages without actually
engaging in the new roles as the Japanese government decided in March
to withdraw the GSDF troops. (May 1)