National / Politics

John Bolton meets key officials in Tokyo amid U.S. push to build multinational force for policing the Strait of Hormuz

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton met with key diplomatic and security officials in Tokyo on Monday amid Washington’s push to build a multinational force to safeguard commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

Bolton held separate meetings with Foreign Minister Taro Kono, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya and Shotaro Yachi, a key security adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Facing reporters after meeting with Iwaya, Bolton said the two had a “very productive discussion.”

“I’m sure those discussions will continue over the next days and week. I’m very optimistic about the outcome,” Bolton said, declining to provide details.

Later in the same day, Defense Minister Iwaya told reporters that the two did not specifically discuss details of the U.S.-proposed maritime safeguard operations in the Strait of Hormuz.

Japan will first focus on diplomatic efforts to ease tensions in the region and Tokyo will “consider the U.S. proposal after closely examining its details,” Iwaya said.

According to a statement released by the Foreign Ministry, Kono and Bolton discussed “various issues” and agreed that the two countries will “closely cooperate” in dealing with them. The issues included North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the statement said.

On Friday in Washington, the U.S. government briefed diplomats from allied countries including Japan about its bid to build a military coalition to ensure the safe passage of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz amid heightened tensions.

The U.S. proposal came after President Donald Trump argued on Twitter last month that China and Japan should protect their own oil tankers traveling through the Persian Gulf.

“So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey,” Trump tweeted.

If Japan is asked to send Self-Defense Force ships to the Strait of Hormuz, it would spark a huge domestic controversy given the country’s long-standing pacifist policies, which are based on the war-renouncing Constitution.

Abe’s government has been reluctant to send SDF ships to join the U.S.-proposed mission, partly because of legal constraints.

In 2015, Abe revised the long-standing government interpretation of the Constitution when his ruling bloc enacted controversial security laws allowing Tokyo to dispatch military forces overseas to defend those of an allied county.

However, even under Abe’s controversial interpretation of the war-renouncing Article 9, the SDF would be allowed to defend an allied country only if the situation was so severe that Japan’s own “survival” was determined to be at stake.

“Right now we are not thinking of sending the SDF” to the Strait of Hormuz, Iwaya told a news conference on July 16.

“Now, the (security situation in the Persian Gulf) has been in a lull,” he said.

Japan has another law that would allow the government to have the SDF engage in maritime police operations to protect privately owned Japanese ships. But under that law the SDF would only be allowed to protect Japanese vessels.

Japan heavily relies on oil from the Middle East, and 80 percent of the country’s total crude oil imports are transported through the Strait of Hormuz.