TOKYO — Japan will consider options if the United States seeks cooperation in safeguarding commercial shipping in the Middle East following recent attacks on oil tankers in the area, Japanese officials said Wednesday.
Under the bounds of the pacifist Constitution, Japan will likely have only limited options such as providing logistical support under a special law, as was seen in the aftermath of the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the officials said.
It is uncertain whether President Donald Trump would turn to Japan for help as Washington has increasingly pointed to threats from Iran. But Trump has said that what he perceives as an “unfair” bilateral security treaty should be changed, while denying he would scrap it.
“We don’t know if the United States expects (cooperation from) Japan,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.
Since facing criticism for only extending financial support in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, Japan has been expanding the role that the Self-Defense Forces can play overseas. But the bar is still seen as high for the troops to be sent abroad.
“We have a high hurdle to clear if we try to dispatch the SDF under existing laws,” a government official said.
U.S. media reported Tuesday that the United States wants a military coalition to safeguard shipping lanes from Iranian threats off Iran and Yemen after two tankers were attacked.
“We are engaging now with a number of countries to see if we can put together a coalition that would ensure freedom of navigation both in the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb,” Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted as telling reporters.
In the recent escalation of tensions in the Middle East, one of the tankers attacked near the Strait of Hormuz, a key corridor through which major oil exports flow to the world, was operated by a Japanese firm.
Under security legislation enacted in 2015 under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan can now come to the aid of allies such as the United States even when Japan itself has not been attacked, in what is known as the use of collective self-defense.
The SDF can be dispatched if a situation arises in which an attack on another country threatens Japan’s existence.
But Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya has already dismissed the idea of sending SDF personnel as the tanker attacks do not satisfy the requirements for Japan to use the right to collective self-defense.
Another option would be to send the SDF on a patrol mission to ensure maritime security as the SDF law allows the defense minister to order an SDF dispatch to protect people’s lives and assets, and maintain order.
Turning to a third option, the country’s antipiracy legislation is also seen as unfeasible with no evidence so far showing that pirates are behind the tanker attacks.
“If Japan decides to send the SDF, we will need a special law of the sort to enable its dispatch for logistical support such as refueling,” another senior official of the Foreign Ministry said.
Following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Japan enacted an antiterrorism special measures law to engage in a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.