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Editorial: Japan should expand diplomatic efforts before sending MSDF to Middle East

  • October 22, 2019
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has instructed the Japanese government to consider specific measures to deploy Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) personnel to the waters off Oman in the Middle East. An MSDF escort vessel is expected to be dispatched to the area at the beginning of 2020. The government is also exploring the possibility of using patrol aircraft operating off Somalia under the Anti-Piracy Measures Act for the new mission.

Japan, which has continued diplomacy with the United States and Iran despite their bitter conflict, made the decision after apparently deeming that the dispatch of MSDF personnel to the area is a compromise plan that can win the understanding of both countries.


The United States had urged Japan to participate in the Maritime Security Initiative for the Strait of Hormuz to protect the safety of navigation in the area. However, if Japan had joined in the arrangement, it could have been viewed by Tehran as Tokyo’s participation in an anti-Iran military coalition.


Prime Minister Abe, who has attached importance to Japan’s longstanding friendly relations with Iran, has held dialogue with dignitaries from the Middle Eastern country. Tokyo must not ruin these diplomatic efforts.


Considering Japan’s friendly ties with Iran, the government has chosen not to participate in the U.S.-led initiative and decided to exclude the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf from the scope of areas where MSDF troops will operate in the new mission. However, Japan will provide information gathered by the MSDF through its mission to the United States.


Questions remain, however, about the legal basis for the deployment. The government says the MSDF personnel will be involved in information-gathering activities on a survey and research mission provided for by the Act for Establishment of the Ministry of Defense. However, the possibility cannot be ruled out that tankers or commercial vessels will be attacked during the mission.


Since a tanker owned by a Japanese company was attacked near the Strait of Hormuz in June, the government explored the possibility of having MSDF personnel guard Japanese vessels by ordering a seaborne policing action under the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) Act.


However, as the situation has calmed down in the area, the government appears to be contemplating the deployment of MSDF personnel to the Middle East for the purpose of gathering information and then ordering a seaborne policing action if the situation becomes tense again.


Following coordinated terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, Tokyo deployed vessels to the Indian Ocean for a survey and research mission before switching the mission to a refueling one for U.S. forces and other vessels. It is now common for SDF personnel to conduct surveillance activities in the East China Sea and other waters surrounding Japan under the pretext of survey and research missions.


It is obviously a quick-fix approach that Japan intends to deploy SDF personnel on a survey and research mission to the Middle East where conflicts frequently occur. In-depth discussions are needed on the risk of SDF members getting embroiled in armed conflicts as well as the criteria for using weapons in cases of emergency.


As a resource-poor country that relies on the Middle East for nearly 90% of its oil imports, Japan should play a proactive role in ensuring the safety of navigation in the area and put further efforts into a diplomatic solution rather than defense activities.

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