I have been informed that my essay on The Diplomat has touched off a Facebook discussion about the lack of involvement on the part of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense, a discussion that has been focusing on Prime Minister Abe’s alleged unwillingness to do so. I’d never considered the matter at all, since it was, is, and for the foreseeable future, illegal to bring the Self-Defense Forces into this. Article 79 of the Self-Defense Forces Act states, “The Prime Minister may order all or part of the Self-Defense Force for operations in the case where it is determined that public security cannot be maintained with general policing powers in an indirect invasion or other emergency situation. So does an “indirect invasion or other emergency situation” exist here? Remember that these are the high seas. The Chinese boats have every right to loiter there, (pretending that they are) doing nothing. The Japanese authorities can and do accost and board these boats for inspection, at which point they are known to attempt to flee, but none have been reported to resist using force. Suspicion of surreptitious criminal activity and lack of capacity to police it appropriately are hard to justify as grounds for finding “indirect invasion or other emergency situation.”
A more useful course of inquiry is this: Why not give the Self-Defense Force policing powers, in the same way that the U.S. Coast Guard doubles as a civilian authority and an arm of the military? I am not opposed to this as a matter of principle, although I suspect that the greater part of the Japanese public, even many traditional conservatives, will not accept a domestic policing role for the military. But it will bring the Self-Defense Force into play against incursions into the Senkaku territorial waters as well as the islands themselves. The possibility alone would be seen as provocative by the Chinese authorities; actual deployment would be regarded as escalation, very likely compelling them to respond in kind.
The last is a grim possibility that not even the most hawkish administration is willing to countenance, in my view. The Abe administration is looking into the so-called gray areas, but that is about as far as it appears to be willing to go, even if public opinion were not situated as I believe it to be.