The rare overseas mission follows an attack on a Japanese oil tanker and increased American pressure to play a more active role in the region.Dec 27th · 3 min read
The rare overseas mission follows an attack on a Japanese oil tanker and increased American pressure to play a more active role in the region.
A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer during a joint exercise with the United States in the Pacific Ocean in March.Credit...Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
Published Dec. 26, 2019Updated Dec. 27, 2019, 1:51 a.m. ET
TOKYO — Japan will send defense forces early next year to patrol regional shipping lanes in the Middle East, from which it sources much of its crude oil, the government announced on Friday.
The rare overseas deployment, which will be limited to intelligence-gathering, is meant to ensure the “security” of Japanese merchant ships and help maintain “peace and stability” in the region, the cabinet office said in a statement. The decision follows a series of attacks on oil tankers in the region, one of which was Japanese-operated.
The deployment will include one destroyer, equipped with helicopters, and at least one of two P-3C patrol planes currently engaged in antipiracy operations near Somalia. It will be tasked with collecting information that “directly impacts the security of vessels navigating” the region, according to the cabinet office, which approved the plan on Friday. The mission has been authorized for one year and can be extended.
The announcement follows a meeting last week in Tokyo between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, whose country the United States has blamed for attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman in June. The United States has called for an international coalition to protect ships in the region, but only a few of its allies have joined that mission.
The Japanese mission will be independent of any other nation’s deployments in the area, the cabinet office said Friday. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, speaking at a regular press briefing, said intelligence-gathering operations could be conducted in “coordination with relevant countries.”
Japan imports about 90 percent of its crude oil from the Middle East, and “given the rising tensions, it is necessary to strengthen our information collection system for ensuring the safety of Japanese vessels,” Mr. Suga said.
Japan has come under pressure from President Trump to play a more active role in protecting its interests in the Middle East. Mr. Trump has complained that the country pays “zero compensation” for American patrols of shipping lanes in the region. He has also demanded that Tokyo cover more of the costs of stationing American troops in Japan.
Japan’s pacifist Constitution limits its ability to participate in international military coalitions. Mr. Abe has moved to change that, despite public opposition, by issuing a reinterpretation of the Constitution and campaigning to amend it.
The new deployment will be limited to the northern Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Gulf of Aden, the cabinet office said. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force operates a base in Djibouti, which was established in 2011 as a staging area for antipiracy operations.
The government is describing the deployment as an “investigation and research” mission. The participating forces are not authorized to use weapons to protect other ships against attack, the cabinet office said.
However, if the situation warrants, the mission could be converted to a “maritime policing operation,” a designation that would allow the destroyer and planes to defend other vessels.
The Maritime Self-Defense Force will not patrol the vital shipping lanes that run through the Strait of Hormuz. Analysts said that decision was meant to avoid giving the impression that Japan was taking sides with the United States against Iran, with which it has long maintained friendly relations.
The June attack on the Japanese-operated tanker in the Gulf of Oman occurred while Mr. Abe was on an official visit to Iran. The United States blamed the attack on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which the Americans have labeled a terrorist organization.
Japan has been careful to keep up good relations with Iran, and Mr. Abe has positioned himself to act as a possible intermediary between Tehran and Washington.
Mr. Abe briefed Mr. Rouhani on Japan’s mission to the Middle East during their meeting last week, according to NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster. He also encouraged Mr. Rouhani to adhere to Iran’s commitments under the 2015 agreement that froze its nuclear program.
Iran has been incrementally reducing its commitment to the agreement as it seeks relief from heavy economic sanctions imposed on the country by Mr. Trump, following his decision to withdraw the United States from the pact.
Analysts say that Mr. Rouhani’s Japan trip was meant to signal a willingness to reopen long-stalled talks with Washington over Iran’s nuclear program.