Amid the national debate over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proactive security policy and newly enacted laws, a state-of-the-art minesweeper built for the Maritime Self-Defense Force was launched Tuesday in a ceremony in Yokohama.
The 690-ton Awaji is the first of three planned Awaji-class minesweepers, which have hulls made of reinforced plastic so they won’t set off mines with built-in metal-detecting sensors.
They will replace three 1,000-ton Yaeyama-class vessels, which have wooden hulls.
Tuesday’s ceremony was attended by dozens of Defense Ministry officials, MSDF officers and workers from the Awaji’s builder, Japan Marine United Corp.
As Vice Defense Minister Tetsuro Kuroe declared that the ship was formally named Awaji, after an island in Hyogo Prefecture, blocks were removed and the vessel slid down a slipway into the water to the sound of ceremonial music.
Under Abe’s new security laws, the MSDF’s minesweeping force could be ordered on hazardous missions as far away as the Persian Gulf.
Participating in such a mission was long banned under the war-renouncing Constitution, which strictly limits the use of force to self-defense only. There have, however, been exceptions to this.
Abe declared last year that he had changed the long-standing constitutional interpretation and the relevant laws were enacted in September, a move that a majority of constitutional scholars say violated the Constitution.
According to Abe, removing mines for the sake of an allied country in the Strait of Hormuz will not be regarded as a violation of the Constitution because the maintenance of security in the strait, through which about 80 percent of oil destined for Japan is transported, is critically important for national interests.
Under international law, removing sea mines laid by a third country is regarded as “use of force.”
Under the war-renouncing Constitution, “use of force” is strictly prohibited except for Japan’s self-defense.
Use of the right to collective self-defense, or the right to attack a third country attacking an allied country even if Japan itself is not being attacked, was similarly considered banned under the Constitution.
Military experts have offered high praise for the skills of Japan’s minesweeping force, which currently has a total of 21 vessels.
The government has already mobilized minesweeping units to raise Japan’s military presence and contribute to allied efforts.
During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Japan provided as much as ¥1.5 trillion in funding for the U.S.-led multinational forces, but this “checkbook diplomacy” was criticized by many countries and top Japanese politicians and government officials were left stigmatized.
In April 1991, Japan dispatched five minesweepers and one support vessel to the Persian Gulf to join a multinational postwar mission to remove 1,200 mines laid by Iraq forces in the sea off Kuwait.
“The SDF has engaged in international cooperation activities overseas for over 20 years, starting with minesweeping in the Persian Gulf,” Abe told a news conference May 14. “Our activities will not be limited to situations that have an important influence on Japan’s peace and security. Japan is determined to contribute even more actively to global peace and stability.”
Last year Abe declared the government had changed the constitutional interpretation and started arguing Japan can dispatch minesweepers to such places as the Strait of Hormuz if Japan’s “survival” is at stake and use of force is limited to “the minimum necessary” level.