National | ANALYSIS

Australia's decision to join U.S.-led maritime mission off Iran likely to heighten pressure on Japan

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

In a move that could heighten pressure on 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 ongoing tensions with Iran, albeit under Australia’s operational control.

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 over the past few months.

The coalition plan, called the Maritime Security Initiative and also known as Operation Sentinel, is being pushed 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 and is seeking other members to join the coalition, including Japan.

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

The move will see the P8 Poseidon aircraft patrol the region for a month later in the year, while the frigate, with a crew of some 170, will begin a six-month tour of duty in January.

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

The Australian Defense Department told The Japan Times that the operation would not be under the U.S. coalition but rather under Operation Manitou, Canberra’s “contribution to support international efforts to promote maritime security, stability and prosperity in the Middle East Region.” Australia has conducted operations in the area under that name since 1990.

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.

In response to the U.S. request, Tokyo has said it is exploring what role it can play in safeguarding ships in the strait — a key sea lane through which around one-fifth of the world’s oil passes — while not impairing its long-standing friendship with Iran.

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

But Canberra’s decision could prove to be a model for participation in the grouping by the Maritime Self-Defense Force, which would give the Japanese government some cover amid the public opposition.

“The question is whether the JMSDF would join Op Sentinel directly in the same way the Royal Navy has,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank in Canberra. “Or do something as part of a multilateral maritime security effort as Australia seems to be doing now.”

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, said that while the Australian contribution is “modest,” it “is not insignificant.

“It is also in line with the decadeslong U.S. Australian military cooperation,” he said. “That track record distinguishes and informs how Japan decides what is the best course of action with regards to the Strait of Hormuz mission.”

Nagy, who also serves as a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs, said such a deployment could see the MSDF dispatched to engage in duties similar to its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S.-led anti-terrorism operations in and around Afghanistan between 2001 and 2010.

Alternatively, Tokyo could look to free up U.S. and Australian forces by making contributions in other areas where Washington and Canberra are engaged.

“In lieu of direct contributions in the straits, Japan could also step up its presence in the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific as Australia and the U.S. direct resources away from the region to the Gulf,” Nagy said.

Any decision will also likely come as Japan grapples with onerous trade and security demands from the United States. The White House is seeking a bilateral trade deal with Japan, and is expected to ask that Tokyo dole out more cash for hosting U.S. troops.

Nagy hinted that an MSDF dispatch similar in scale to what he suggested could help alleviate some of the pressure Tokyo is facing on other fronts in the alliance.

“There is always pressure for Japan to do more,” he said. “What is crucial is that Japan demonstrates … burden-sharing and its comparative advantages within the alliance structure.”