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Editorial: Is Japan ready to protect its own vessels?

Japan and China rely on tankers passing the Strait of Hormuz for the transport of most of their oil. Amid growing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, U.S. President Donald Trump, referring to Japan and China, posted a tweet on June 24, saying, “Why is the U.S. protecting the sea transport route for other countries free of charge?”


This is a serious warning to which we must pay attention. The president said, “Countries should protect their vessels on their own.” We should not simply criticize the comment as “disregard for the alliance.” Japan relies on the Middle East for its energy supply. The country’s stance on maritime security has been called into question.


During the upcoming summit of 20 countries and regions (G20) to be held in Osaka City this week, we want Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to lead discussions on ensuring the safety of the Strait of Hormuz.


Bearing in mind Iran’s shooting down of a U.S. reconnaissance drone, President Trump announced additional sanction measures against Iran including its supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, saying, “The U.S. will not necessarily restrain itself in the future.” In this way, the president suggested that the U.S. will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations.


It was only a short while ago that President Trump withdrew his order for military action against Iran. On the other hand, Iran’s hardliners including its Revolutionary Guards are adopting an increasingly anti-U.S. stance. A situation in which the slightest provocation could touch off a war will apparently continue.  


Japan is inevitably involved in the tension between the U.S. and Iran. When Prime Minister Abe visited Tehran this month, a tanker operated by a Japanese shipping company was attacked. The U.S. claims that Iran was involved in the attack.


Immediately after the attack, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya said, “I don’t see any necessity to deploy the SDF to the area at this moment,” quickly dismissing the possibility of dispatching a Maritime Self-Defense Force’s vessel. This revealed that Japan has no intention to protect Japan-bound oil shipments on its own and is not ready to do so.


In response to President Trump’s tweet, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was visiting the Middle East, called for establishing an alliance to counter Iran’s threat. A senior official who accompanied the secretary proposed that relevant countries dispatch vessels to the Persian Gulf to ensure the safety of tankers and other ships.


In fact, the MSDF is deploying ships off Somalia for an anti-pirate operation in cooperation with other countries’ navies to protect civilian vessels. International maritime surveillance is effective against provocations by armed groups and in the deterrence of conflicts.


With the increasing production of shale gas, the U.S.’s reliance on oil from the Middle East is diminishing. Under the circumstances, the U.S. inevitably requires its allies and friendly countries to shoulder the burden of security. How will Japan protect its lifeline? Now is the time for the government to give this matter serious consideration including the dispatch of MSDF destroyers.

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