MSDF role in piracy fight eyed, iffy

Despite timeliness, not easy to sell public on new tour amid Indian Ocean mission snafu

by Kakumi Kobayashi

Kyodo News

Prime Minister Taro Aso is considering sending the Maritime Self-Defense Force to deal with the growing number of piracy attacks off Somalia, but lawmakers and the public appear cool to the idea.

Aso is willing to draft a bill to authorize a possible antipiracy mission by the MSDF in line with similar moves by NATO and the European Union to send warships to crack down on pirates.

NATO said it already dispatched seven warships off Somalia to protect ships of the World Food Program from pirate attacks. Russia and India have also separately deployed warships, and the EU plans to send seven ships for the mission in December.

But bureaucrats and legislators in Japan say there are still numerous hurdles to clear, including legal restrictions on the overseas activities of the MSDF, particularly the use of arms under the Constitution.

Aso, who is suffering falling support rates, should be dealing with more bread-and-butter issues, including propping up the economy, lawmakers and pundits said.

The MSDF dispatch is being considered at a time when many countries’ vessels are coming under pirate attack. Ships linked to Japan sailing in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden near Somalia, where political chaos continues, have also been targeted.

There have been at least seven cases so far this year in which Japan-related commercial ships were attacked and even seized by pirates off Somalia, compared with only one in 2007 and none between 2000 and 2006, according to Japanese authorities.

A U.N. report said at least 65 commercial ships were seized by pirates this year, resulting in an estimated $25 million to $30 million in total ransom paid out.

Japanese authorities, citing data by the International Maritime Bureau, said the number of piracy incidents worldwide is on a downtrend this year, but those near Somalia increased to 24 in the first half of 2008 against 44 for the whole of last year.

“We must deal with this matter in a serious manner,” veteran legislator Gen Nakatani told a recent panel on national defense of Aso’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, referring to the need for a law authorizing antipiracy activities by the MSDF off Somalia. Nakatani once headed the former Defense Agency.

Key members of the LDP panel said they are trying to launch a joint task force with New Komeito, the LDP’s partner in the ruling coalition.

Last week, a nonpartisan group of lawmakers agreed to try to sponsor a bill for a temporary law authorizing an MSDF antipiracy mission off Somalia.

Among the lawmakers were Nakatani and Seiji Maehara, a former president of the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition party, as well as those from New Komeito.

But there are few signs suggesting the action of the nonpartisan group can soon develop into a major force to push for the legislation.

Vice Defense Minister Kohei Masuda indicated it is premature to discuss the matter in detail, saying, “I must refrain from commenting on (ongoing) discussions among parliamentarians.”

The ruling bloc at present is in the middle of a Diet tug of war to continue an MSDF refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of multination antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan. A dispatch off Somalia, which would require authorization to use force, would be even more politically problematic.

MSDF minesweepers were sent to the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s after the Gulf War, but only after heated debate.

Security policy expert Satoshi Morimoto said Japan should join the antipiracy mission as “a seafaring nation” that receives benefits from sea-related business. He urged the government and Diet to expedite a law to this end.

“Many in Japan think the issue of antipiracy activities far away from Japan emerged all of a sudden. It is understandable,” said Morimoto, who heads Takushoku University’s Institute of World Studies.

“But as the chaos continues in Somalia, the sea environment has become drastically unsafe in the past couple of years,” Morimoto said, adding it should not be hard for Aso to gain public support for an MSDF antipiracy escort dispatch. “But the government should state its case why clearly,” he said.

However, an MSDF officer expressed doubt about the force’s effectiveness in a piracy crackdown, voicing concern over exactly what it can do in such a large expanse of sea off eastern Africa under the pacifist Constitution.

“Our expertise is very limited,” the officer said, asking not to be named. “For example, we have no idea under which circumstance we are legally allowed to approach a suspected pirate boat, inspect it and possibly fight the crew.”

A ranking Self-Defense Forces officer proposed that Japan fly patrol airplanes near Somalia to possibly detect pirate boats heading for commercial ships.

“If we fly aircraft and notify other countries of suspicious findings at an early stage, we would be able to make a contribution to the antipiracy activities,” the officer said.

“And in that case, we would not have to deal with legal matters such as how close we can approach a suspected pirate boat and whether we can stop and inspect it,” he said.