Asia Pacific

In move that could have repercussions for Japan, Australia to join U.S. in Gulf maritime security mission

AFP-JIJI, Kyodo

In a move that could have repercussions for Japan, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Wednesday that his country will join the U.S.-led mission to protect shipping through the Strait of Hormuz amid heightened tensions with Iran.

Morrison said Australia would send a “modest” contribution — including a frigate, a P8 maritime surveillance aircraft and support staff — to the mission, which will also involve British and Bahraini forces.

“Our contribution will be limited in scope and it will be time-bound,” Morrison said, expressing concern about security incidents in the vital shipping lane in the past few months.

“This destabilizing behavior is a threat to Australian interests in the region,” he said in a joint statement with his foreign and defense ministers.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper had pressed for Australia’s help patrolling the strategic waterway during a visit to Sydney earlier this month.

The coalition plan, called the Maritime Security Initiative, is being considered in the wake of attacks on two oil tankers — one of them operated by a Japanese shipping firm — near the Strait of Hormuz in June. The United States has blamed Iran for the incidents.

The move follows a spate of incidents — including the seizure of ships — involving Iran and Western powers, in particular Britain and the U.S., centered on the vital Gulf channel.

Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds said military staff would in coming weeks join the security operation’s headquarters in Bahrain, which announced its involvement in the operation Tuesday.

The P8 Poseidon aircraft will patrol the region for a month, later in the year. The frigate, with a crew of some 170, will not be deployed to the joint operation until January and take part for six months, she said.

Morrison stressed that the deployment would be “modest, meaningful and time-limited” while defense experts said it was likely a “re-tasking” of planned deployments to the region to satisfy U.S. requests.

The U.S. had been struggling to piece together an international coalition to protect cargo ships traveling through the Gulf, with allies concerned about being dragged into conflict with Iran.

Washington has also urged Japan to consider taking part, and Tokyo has said it is exploring what role it can play in safeguarding ships in the Middle East while not impairing its long-standing friendship with Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is likely to visit Japan this month for talks on the situation in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, diplomatic sources have said. Iran is expected to communicate its position of opposing a U.S.-led coalition to protect shipping in the strait from Iranian military forces.

A Kyodo News survey showed Sunday that over half of voters oppose dispatching Self-Defense Forces personnel to the Middle East to join the coalition.

In the nationwide telephone poll conducted Saturday and Sunday, 57.1 percent said Japan should not send SDF forces to the region, while 28.2 percent said it should.