Tokyo, Jan. 6 (Jiji Press)–In the run-up to the planned dispatch of a Self-Defense Forces unit to the Middle East, the Japanese government is increasingly concerned over growing tensions in the region after a U.S. airstrike killed Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.
Potential retaliatory measures by Tehran may escalate the situation into a full-blown armed conflict, affecting the SDF mission, pundits said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed serious concern about the situation at a press conference Monday, but he said there are no changes to the planned SDF deployment at this point. “We will ensure the safety of navigation by ships linked to Japan,” he said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also stressed that the SDF mission will be carried out as planned, saying on television: “Is it alright for only Japan not to do anything? That can’t happen.”
Late last month, the Abe cabinet decided to dispatch a Maritime SDF destroyer to the Middle East for information-gathering to ensure safe navigation along sea lanes in the region. The new mission is expected to begin in late February. Patrol aircraft now on an anti-piracy mission off Somalia will also be converted for use in the new operations.
The mission will be based on the Defense Ministry establishment law’s Article 4, which calls for conducting necessary survey and research.
But MSDF members to be dispatched may be ordered to carry out maritime security operations based on the SDF law in the event of an emergency. Even under such circumstances, the use of force to protect Japanese vessels would be limited to emergency evacuation and policing, prompting fears that the MSDF destroyer may get caught up in armed conflict without full-fledged preparations.
“Once a scuffle breaks out, it will become a warzone,” a senior Defense Ministry official said. “We can’t send SDF members to a combat area,” the official said, suggesting that depending on developments, the mission plan may be altered or the unit may be forced to withdraw from the area.
Abe is slated to visit Middle East countries including Saudi Arabia later this month to seek their understanding over the SDF deployment plan.
“The situation in the Middle East can change by the minute, so we must pay close attention,” a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said, suggesting that the government will monitor the situation up until the last minute.