Asia trembles as Japan's air force flies over foreign skies

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The Independent Online
The former Singaporean prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, Asia's most forthright statesman, once said why Japan should never again be allowed to send troops overseas. It was like "giving liqueur chocolates to a reformed alcoholic".

Today, the theory goes, it might be a peace-keeping operation, tomorrow Japan could be invading, colonising, and pillaging Asia as it did in the Thirties and the Second World War.

Whether or not you believe this, three warplanes of the Air Self Defence Forces (ASDF), as the Japanese air force calls itself, landed in Thailand on Saturday on their first active over- seas mission since the end of the Second World War.

Their mission is a humanitarian one: to remain on stand-by for the possible evacuation of Japanese nationals in Cambodia, should the situation deteriorate.

Nobody believes that the three C-130 Hercules transporters are about to start laying claim to South-east Asia. But the haste with which the operation has been pushed through has upset opposition politicians in Japan, and suggests a willingness on the part of Ryutaro Hashimoto, the Prime Minister, to reassert Japan's dormant military capacity.

The ASDF mission looks as much like a symbolic assertion of will as a practical security measure. As Mr Hashimoto's own diplomats have pointed out, the situation in Cambodia has stabilised since last weekend when a Japanese expatriate engineer became one of 70 people killed during fighting in the capital Phnom Penh.

Residents are freely walking the streets, the international airport has been reopened, and there are empty seats on outward bound commercial flights.

On top of this, the Japanese planes have been dispatched with unusual speed, and with none of the agonised consensus-building that usually accompanies military decisions.

Until 1994, under the "peace" constitution drawn up by the occupying Americans during the post-war period, Japanese forces were barred from going abroad, even on evacuation missions. This law was changed only after long debate, and against the better judgement of many on the Japanese left who firmly hold to the liqueur chocolate theory. But when Mr Hashimoto made his decision, he did not see fit even to inform the Social Democratic Party (SDP), his partner in the parliamentary coalition.

"If everything is decided by what the Prime Minister says we will have no use for laws," said the SDP leader, Takako Doi, who complained that, even under the revised law, the mission is illegal.

The amendments passed in 1994 allow for evacuation missions in case of imminent danger to Japanese nationals, but officially the planes which flew out this weekend are "preparing for a possible evacuation". No one even pretends that the danger is pressing; it may be that they will soon fly home again having simply sat on the Thai tarmac for a few days.

But the thought is what counts and, having pulled it off once, Mr Hashimoto will have established an important precedent. Since he became Prime Minister 18 months ago, and in contrast with many of his predecessors, he has established a reputation as a decisive leader, intent on reforming the practices and inhibitions which have prevented Japan from wielding political and diplomatic power in keeping with its economic clout.

While Mr Hashimoto chews his chocolates, Asia will be watching for signs of tipsiness.