The Lower House passed an antipiracy bill Thursday to create a permanent law enabling the Maritime Self-Defense Force to protect ships of any nationality against pirates, amid strong protests from opposition parties.

The bill passed with the majority vote of the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc and was immediately sent to the opposition-controlled Upper House for further deliberation.

Even though the upper chamber is expected to reject the bill, the ruling bloc is still on course to enact the legislation during the current Diet session, which ends June 3, by ramming the legislation through with a second vote in the more powerful Lower House.

During a Lower House special committee on the piracy bill, Prime Minister Taro Aso said its enactment was “an urgent and important issue,” and stressed the need to approve it as soon as possible.

Crucially, the bill would relax restrictions on the use of arms and allow the MSDF to fire at pirate vessels that ignore warnings.

“Being an island country, Japan relies heavily on imports of resources, so securing the safety of marine transport is extremely high on the list of priorities,” Aso said. “I believe that protecting the lives and goods of Japan is a serious responsibility of the government.”

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia has increased considerably since last year. According to former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, 20 vessels have been hijacked by pirates this month alone and 15 boats remain in captivity and 250 crew members and passengers held hostage.

To deal with piracy off Somalia, the government sent two MSDF destroyers last month to patrol the area based on the maritime police provision of the Self Defense-Forces Law. This law, however, limits MSDF activity to escorting vessels connected with Japan, such as Japanese-registered ships or foreign ships with Japanese crew or cargo on board.

“The MSDF activities are extremely limited because they can only protect Japan-related ships,” Nakatani said. Japan “cannot protect the ships of other countries under the current law and I heard they are having a difficult time” in Somalia.

The government-sponsored antipiracy bill would enable the MSDF to protect not only Japan-related ships but also foreign vessels.

Under the current law, the MSDF cannot attack pirates except in limited circumstances, such as emergency evacuations or for self-defense. Article 7 of the Police Execution of Duties Law limits the use of arms to incidents deemed necessary, including self-defense or the protection of others, or in making arrests or preventing flights from justice.

However, the Social Democratic Party and Japanese Communist Party expressed strong concern over the relaxation of the use of weapons. JCP lawmaker Seiken Akamine slammed the bill, saying it should be scrapped.

“This is a bill that uses antipiracy measures as an excuse for the SDF to use force abroad and would pave the way for a permanent bill to dispatch the SDF overseas,” Akamine said at the Lower House plenary session Thursday. “The bill should definitely be scrapped.”

The Democratic Party of Japan, meanwhile, had tried and failed to come to an agreement with the ruling bloc to amend the bill so MSDF dispatches on antipiracy missions would require prior Diet approval.

But the government and the ruling bloc rejected this demand, saying the government may need to swiftly deploy MSDF vessels. The bill requires the prime minister to report to the Diet only after orders have been issued for a dispatch.

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