National

Japan's SDF to head for Mideast waters, but Tokyo steers clear of U.S.-led coalition

Defense Minister Taro Kono says units unlikely to see action defending crude-filled tankers

by Reiji Yoshida and Sakura Murakami

Staff Writers

Japan plans to dispatch Self-Defense Forces ships and patrol planes to the Gulf of Oman, the northern Arabian Sea and the eastern part of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, but will not join a U.S.-led coalition meant to protect shipping interests in the strategic Mideast waterways, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Friday.

The top government spokesman said Tokyo will dispatch the SDF units for “investigation and research missions” to gather information in the region.

Later in the day, Defense Minister Taro Kono said Tokyo currently doesn’t believe that the security situation in the Mideast is so tense that the units might engage in military operations to defend Japan-related tankers.

However, the dispatch represents a historic mission for the SDF and the recent expansion in the scope of its operations. Japanese ships will be operating thousands of kilometers away from a country known for its pacifist Constitution, which largely limits the SDF’s operations to areas around its borders.

Japan will not join the U.S.-led coalition but will still “closely cooperate” with Washington, Suga said. He avoided revealing when the forces would be deployed, saying it was “under consideration.”

The decision to steer clear of the coalition in the Strait of Hormuz could be a sign that Tokyo is aiming to avoid damaging its relatively neutral stance on Middle East issues.

Japan has maintained good relationships with many Middle East countries and Tokyo heavily relies on crude oil from the region.

Tokyo has found itself under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump to join the coalition to reduce what the U.S. leader views as the burden of defending its allies’ interests in the Middle East.

“I reckon Tokyo had no choice but to bow under the pressure of the U.S.,” said Osamu Miyata, chairman of the Center for Contemporary Islamic Studies in Japan.

“Japan was in a tricky position, given that it couldn’t reject all of Trump’s proposals but didn’t want to jeopardize its good relationship with Iran,” meaning that keeping the SDF deployment separate from the coalition force was seen as the best option, he said.

“The fact that Japan didn’t join the U.S. coalition force is a good sign from Iran’s perspective, but the very catalyst for dispatching the SDF at all was … Trump’s request to Japan … (and) is also quite worrying” for neighboring countries, he added.

“Being seen as too friendly with the U.S. would tarnish Japan’s reputation in the Middle East,” Miyata said.

In 2017, Japan imported about 3.22 million barrels of crude oil per day. Of that, 40.2 percent came from Saudi Arabia, 24.2 percent from the United Arab Emirates, 7.3 percent from Qatar, 7.1 percent from Kuwait, 5.8 percent from Russia and 5.5 percent from Iran.

About 80 percent of the Japan-bound crude exports are transported through the Strait of Hormuz, a critical choke point off Iran that is only 33 km across at its narrowest point.

Iranian officials at one point threatened to block the strait in retaliation for sanctions targeting the country’s nuclear program.

Tensions in the Middle East flared dramatically after two oil tankers, including one operated by a Japanese company, were attacked near the Strait of Hormuz in June.

The U.S. and Iran have blamed each other for staging the attack and worsening tensions in the region, while Tokyo has kept its distance from Trump’s criticism of Tehran.

The U.S. has called on its allies to join the coalition. The U.K., Bahrain and Australia have already decided to participate.

Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to have sought to honor a long-standing security relationship with the U.S., Miyata isn’t so sure the effort will pay off.

“Trump isn’t one to take his allies into consideration when it comes down to it, as we saw with how he stopped supporting Kurdish forces recently,” Miyata said.

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