POLITICAL infighting within Japan's ruling party has dimmed prospects that Japanese soldiers will be sent to the Gulf this year to back up Western forces facing Iraq. Without a troop presence in the Gulf, Japan risks more criticism in the United States, despite its pledge of $4 billion in aid. But the risk of US backlash has not prevented some leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from trying to use the Middle East crisis as a way to oust Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu.
Contenders for the post within the LDP's rival factions are maneuvering to ensure that Mr. Kaifu takes the blame for the expected disapproval by the Diet, or parliament, of a new bill that would allow troops to operate overseas in United Nations military missions, say high government officials.
The bill, submitted to the Diet yesterday after 40 days of internal LDP debate, faces strong resistance. Most opposition parties and many scholars say it violates Japan's so-called ``peace'' Constitution. Beneath their arguments lie popular concerns that the Army never again be given a dominant role like it had before and during World War II. Recent public opinion polls reveal little support for sending troops abroad, despite Japan's new status as an economic superpower.
Kaifu, who has tried to maintain his political standing by claiming a close relationship with President Bush, has been weakened in recent weeks by waffling twice on Japan's support for the US position in the Gulf. He has been openly challenged on his Gulf policy by two LDP leaders. By possibly faltering a third time on the emotion-charged issue of the military's role, Kaifu might be forced to resign or call an election. ``It could be bye-bye for Kaifu,'' says a director-general of the Foreign Ministry.
Installed by LDP power brokers as a caretaker prime minister in August 1989, Kaifu has gained public popularity, but remains vulnerable. Time is working against him. Passage of legislation will be difficult during this special session of the Diet. The session is due to end Nov. 10 for the two-week enthronement rites of the new emperor, Akihito. Soon after that, year-end holidays begin.
THE one opposition party that holds the key to passage of the bill, the Buddhist-backed Komeito, says a month is not long enough to debate a fundamental change in Japan's postwar military policy.
LDP leaders are eager for Japan eventually to weaken the constitutional limit on the role of the so-called Self-Defense Forces (SDF) - a euphemism used to describe the Army, Navy, and Air Force. For instance, LDP Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa hopes the debate over the bill will begin to change attitudes toward the military. Other officials admit that such a debate over the SDF's role is almost hypothetical, since present plans call for only about 100 medical workers and a few transport and supply ships to be sent to the Gulf.
By the time Japan makes up its mind on sending personnel, the Gulf crisis could come to an end, either through war or negotiations. ``It will be difficult to send [troops] this year,'' says Nobutoshi Akao, director-general of the Foreign Ministry's United Nations bureau.
Still, to skirt a constitutional ban against ``the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,'' LDP and government leaders are introducing a concept of ``collective security.'' This term, taken from the UN Charter, would help the government justify sending Japanese troops in future UN missions, such as a likely UN peacekeeping force in Cambodia. ``We are trying to clarify the meaning of collective security,'' says Foreign Ministry spokesman Taizo Watanabe.
Kaifu's future, as well as the bill's, hangs on such issues as whether troops should carry small arms and whether they are to be assigned as standing SDF. At present, the bill calls for soldiers to carry small arms and keep their SDF status. Still unsettled, says Mr. Akao, is whether they will wear SDF uniforms.