By Hiroyuki Ishida, political reporter
The Japanese and U.S. governments embarked on the first U.S. ship protection mission in peacetime on May 1. This is a historic step for Japan-U.S. cooperation in their involvement with regional security in Asia and the Pacific. Both governments intend to promote further operational integration of the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) and the U.S. Navy, not only as a deterrent against North Korea’s development of nuclear arms and missiles, but also to restrain China’s continuing military expansion.
U.S. ship protection in peacetime has long been a pending issue between the two governments. The U.S. had strongly called for the MSDF’s support of the U.S. Navy in its surveillance operations in the Asia-Pacific.
The Japanese government has not announced the current ship protection mission, treating it as a military secret, so officially it is not acknowledging that any such mission is taking place.
The two sides started coordination in March. They decided to embark on the mission during joint exercises with U.S. supply ships in the Pacific in May. They avoided the East and South China Seas, which might provoke China and North Korea, and decided to involve only lightly-armed supply ships, thus “kicking off the mission cautiously with minimal provocation,” according to an informed source.
There had been cautious opinions regarding the implementation of the mission amid the tension on the Korean Peninsula. However, the government opted to embark on ship protection immediately after the MSDF destroyers’ joint exercises with the USS Carl Vinson from April 23-29 in order to “demonstrate strong unity between Japan and the U.S. to North Korea,” according to a senior Defense Ministry official.
Japan and the U.S. plan to step up ship protection missions in stages to include operations in the East China Sea, where China is making aggressive advances, or protection of Aegis ships, in order to upgrade the effectiveness of joint Japan-U.S. response. (Abridged)