The government has begun to seriously consider dispatching Self-Defense Force units to waters surrounding the Gulf of Oman in the Middle East. Ensuring the safety of maritime transport is important, but there are many issues that need to be discussed, including the legal grounds for dispatching SDF ships and cooperation with the U.S. forces in the field.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed the four cabinet ministers of the National Security Council (NSC) to consider sending the SDF to safeguard vessels in the Strait of Hormuz at the NSC meeting convened on Oct. 18. The plan envisages Japan taking action on its own instead of joining the “maritime security initiative” being pursued by the U.S.-led coalition of the willing.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga explained at a press conference that the government “will consider dispatching the SDF mainly to the Gulf of Oman and the high seas located in the northern Arabian Sea and in the eastern part of the Strait of Bab el Mandeb.” He also noted that the deployment will be for the purpose of “research and study,” a provision stipulated in the Defense Ministry Establishment Act.
The SDF will not be allowed to escort commercial vessels using arms in principle if it is sent to the Middle East for intelligence collection. The government can order a “maritime policing action” based on the SDF Act if tensions escalate, but even in that scenario, the SDF would only be allowed to escort ships related to Japan.
The Abe administration included a range of mechanisms to enable the SDF to be dispatched overseas in the security laws, which went into force in 2016. But since Japan is not “at risk” and there is no United Nations resolution, none of the clauses [set forth in the security laws] apply to the current situation.
At present, the SDF is conducting a joint mission with other countries in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia, ensuring the safety of marine transport there based on the anti-piracy law. The option of establishing another special legislation is available, but the government should establish a permanent law and identify the missions [that the SDF can perform].
The government has been looking into measures following the attack on a tanker operated by a Japanese firm near the Strait of Hormuz in June. The U.S. government proposed forming a coalition of the willing to safeguard the Middle East. Britain, Australia and several others have already announced their participation.
Japan has decided not to join the coalition of willing out of consideration for Iran, with which it has built friendship ties over many years. That is a wise decision, but before sending the SDF, the government should make full preparations for sharing information with the U.S. and other nations and cooperating with them in the event of an emergency.
Japan imports over 80% of its crude oil from the Middle East. Attacks on vessels near the Persian Gulf may increase and escalate tensions there. In-depth debate should be conducted in the Diet on the roles that Japan can play in ensuring the safety of maritime transport.