By Yoshitaka Matsuura, Shu Hatakeyama
In January, the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s intelligence-gathering operation in the Middle East entered its second year. The government has decided to extend the deployment citing “high tensions” in the region, but the Ministry of Defense and the SDF have been complaining that the dispatch was extended haphazardly without any significant discussion in the Diet.
The dispatch to the Middle East, which began in the name of ensuring the safety of Japan-related ships, began on Jan. 20, 2020, with P3C patrol aircraft monitoring the high seas. On Feb. 26, a destroyer was added to the operation. The area of activity includes the waters of the Gulf of Aden, the northern Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Oman. By the end of 2020, a total of eight P3C aircraft and three destroyers were assigned to the mission, and a total of 55,837 ships were checked visually or by radar.
In the monthly activity status report released by the Ministry of Defense, the phrase “no particular abnormalities have been confirmed” is repeated. While some in the ministry say that the extension of the dispatch is meaningful because it will contribute to regional stability, others are skeptical. A senior SDF official said, “I don’t think this is an extension for a positive reason.” The main focus is on “intelligence gathering,” which lacks the clarity of a specific purpose as in the case of the anti-piracy operations being conducted by the MSDF in the Gulf of Aden. At best, only two P3Cs and one destroyer can operate simultaneously in the vast sea area, and their effectiveness is questionable.
In the Dec. 2007 cabinet decision to dispatch the troops, the government described the situation in the Middle East as “heightened tensions” and as “continuing high tensions” in the latest cabinet decision. At a press conference on Jan. 8, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said, “The situation has not changed, and we will continue our activities.”
Many lawmakers within the ruling parties think that the future of the MSDF operation depends on moves of the U.S. This is because the Biden administration is committed to easing tensions with Iran. However, a lawmaker who is influential in defense affairs, said, “The future of the operation is uncertain until the new U.S. administration is up and running.”
As the ruling parties have no exit strategy in sight, some officials in the SDF are worried that the deployment may be prolonged, with one of them saying, “Unless the relationship between the U.S. and Iran improves and the U.S. tells Japan that the country can terminate the operation, Japan will not be able to initiate a withdrawal.” (Abridged)