MSDF’s hands tied on antipiracy tour

Operations to be limited until new bill passed


With Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada’s orders to prepare the Maritime Self-Defense Force for dispatch Wednesday, the government has officially given the green light to an antipiracy mission around the Horn of Africa.

The Defense Ministry will now collaborate with the Japan Coast Guard and the transport ministry to map out how to handle the assignment, which will be based on a maritime police-action provision.

The ministry is reportedly considering sending two destroyers with helicopters to escort in groups Japanese vessels traveling through the area.

The key questions now are whether the MSDF can be effective working under the police-action provision and how long it will take to pass a new bill to enable them to properly conduct antipiracy activities.

Talks on sending forces to the region first took place in October, when deliberations in the Diet on extending the MSDF’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean touched on the piracy off Somalia.

According to the Foreign Ministry, the number of pirate attacks near Somali shores rose to 111 cases in 2008, up from 44 incidents in 2007.

The trend has increased sharply since last summer, with about one attack reported every other day between October and December.

Japanese tankers, crew members and foreign vessels operated by Japanese companies have also fallen prey to pirates.

In April, the oil tanker Takayama came under attack off the coast of Yemen in the Gulf of Aden, and Somali pirates left bullet holes in the 150,000-ton ship’s hull.

A chemical tanker from Panama that was being managed by a Japanese company was less fortunate in November, when it was captured by pirates and its South Korean and Filipino crew taken hostage. The crew members were released after two months of captivity.

In theory, it is the coast guard’s duty to provide protection for Japanese vessels at sea. But the government was quick to acknowledge the coast guard’s limitations and opted for the MSDF to provide support.

However, without any laws to govern actions against pirates, the MSDF dispatch will at first be based on the maritime police-action provision in the Self-Defense Forces law.

The provision, originally created to patrol Japan’s shores for foreign intruders, will seriously limit the use of weapons by MSDF personnel.

Until a permanent antipiracy bill can be submitted and passed by the Diet some time in late spring, the destroyers will be unable to protect vessels under attack unless they are Japanese or are carrying Japanese crew members.

The only two other dispatches of the MSDF under the provision were in Japan’s waters — in 1999, when two North Korean vessels were spotted near the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, and in 2004, when a Chinese nuclear submarine was spotted near the Sakishima Islands in Okinawa.

The Japan Ship Owners’ Association last month handed a report to Hamada, calling the Gulf of Aden a pivotal region whose safety could “deeply effect the economy and the lives of Japanese citizens.”

The association said in a statement that escorting ships by the destroyers would “likely have an effect against pirates,” even if their capabilities are limited.

But some experts question whether the dispatch of the destroyers will have any effect on curbing Somalia’s pirates.

“It seems Japan is trying to avoid being left off the bus,” said journalist Tetsuo Maeda, a former professor at Tokyo International University.

Tokyo is trying to catch up with the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Spain in sending ships to the region, but the dispatch of the MSDF is inconsistent with the nature of the police-action provision and also very likely to be ineffective, he said, without noting China also sent warships.

Maeda, an expert on SDF issues, suggested Japan take an approach similar to its actions in the Malacca Strait, where Tokyo effectively provided patrol ships and training sessions for local patrolmen.

Reports of piracy in the notorious region have decreased to one-eighth compared with 2004, according to statistics by the International Maritime Bureau.

“Japan played a key role in reducing the pirates in the Malacca Strait. Taking the same approach with Somalia is far more influential then dispatching inept MSDF ships,” Maeda said.