Japan Adopts Plan to Send Naval Troops to Middle East Amid Continued Tensions in Region

December 27: The Japanese Cabinet approved Friday the dispatch of Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel to the Middle East for information-gathering activities to help ensure the safety of a key oil shipping lane.

Japan’s contribution to peace in the Mideast comes as tensions remain high between the United States and Iran over a 2015 nuclear deal, with Washington blaming Tehran for a series of attacks on oil tankers.

Japan has decided not to join a U.S.-led coalition guarding ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz to avoid hurting its friendly ties with Iran. The United States pulled out of the multinational deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program last year, re-imposing economic sanctions on the country.

Two P-3C patrol planes, which are currently based in Djibouti for anti-piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden, and a helicopter-carrying destroyer will be sent along with around 260 MSDF personnel to engage in a one-year “survey and research” mission, which needs no parliamentary approval.

“The peace and stability of the Middle East are vitally important for the peace and prosperity of the international community, including our nation,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference. “It is necessary to boost intelligence activities for the safety of Japan-related ships in the region,” he added.

After ordering the SDF to prepare for the dispatch, Defense Minister Taro Kono told a separate press conference that the destroyer Takanami will leave Japan in early February after about four weeks of training, and a unit leaving the country on Jan. 11 will engage in intelligence gathering by the P-3C aircraft.

Areas for the mission are limited to the Gulf of Oman, the northern part of the Arabian Sea, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf have been excluded given Iran’s criticism of the U.S. coalition initiative.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gave the nod to the planned MSDF dispatch during talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo last week, according to a Japanese government official.

Safe passage of vessels in the area is vital for Japan, which relies on the Middle East for over 90 percent of its crude oil. But sending the SDF overseas is a sensitive issue in the country, as entanglement in a foreign conflict could violate its war-renouncing Constitution.

The Japanese public is divided over the dispatch, with 51.5 percent of respondents in a recent Kyodo News poll opposing the plan and 33.7 percent expressing support.

Joined by some opposition lawmakers, about 300 citizens rallied in front of the prime minister’s office in Tokyo to protest against the dispatch plan. Among them was Seiji Tominaga, 67, who criticized the government for making the decision without parliamentary approval.

“If (the administration) believed they did the right thing, they should have played fair and discussed it in parliament,” he said. “They are making light of democracy.”

In an emergency, the MSDF could engage in maritime policing action based on the SDF law, which allows personnel to take necessary actions, including the use of weapons, at sea to safeguard Japanese lives and property.

The government initially explored the possibility of extending protection to foreign ships with Japanese nationals aboard, but it decided to limit protection to Japanese-registered vessels as international maritime law only permits the use of force to protect a country’s own vessels, officials said.

Most ships associated with Japanese shipping companies operate under foreign countries’ flags, they said.

The government will be required to report to parliament when the Cabinet makes decisions such as extension or termination of the MSDF Middle East mission.

The creation of the U.S.-led coalition in November follows a series of attacks in May and June on oil tankers, including one operated by a Japanese shipping firm in the Gulf region.

The coalition was launched with the United States and six other countries — Albania, Australia, Bahrain, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Washington had called for the participation of its longtime ally Japan and other countries in the coalition, but many have expressed reservations or distanced themselves from the initiative, partly due to economic interests in Iran.

Source: Mainichi Japan

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