The government faces a series of challenges dispatching Self-Defense Forces to the Middle East, in particular whether such activities would be consistent with the Constitution in the event of their possible involvement in armed conflict.
The government has begun a full appraisal of such details after deciding at a National Security Council, or NSC, meeting on Friday to study a plan that would involve sending SDF vessels and patrol planes to the Middle East, as part of its efforts to ensure navigational safety in the region.
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi informed the United States government on Tuesday that Tokyo plans to send Japan’s defense forces to help safeguard waterways in the Middle East, without joining a U.S.-led maritime security coalition, Japanese officials have said.
During phone talks between Motegi and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the two also pledged close cooperation on Middle East issues so as to ease tensions — which remain high amid a standoff between the U.S. and Iran.
Japan’s government is expected to treat the envisaged dispatch, involving surveillance activities by the SDF vessels and patrol planes, as investigation and research activities under the law for the establishment of the Defense Ministry. The aim would be to collect information, and therefore would not include operations to protect Japanese ships.
As such activities do not require Diet approval, the government would be able to dispatch troops for the mission promptly.
Following the NSC decision, the Defense Ministry set up a task force within the ministry’s Joint Staff Office. The task force has started mapping out countermeasures and equipment required for each possible scenario of envisaged SDF activities in the Middle East, together with the legal legitimacy of those scenarios.
The government was initially cautious about sending SDF troops to the Middle East.
But it ended up considering the dispatch for investigation and research activities as a makeshift solution, after U.S. President Donald Trump demanded in June that Japan and other countries protect their own oil tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz — a key crude oil shipping lane in the region.
With the envisaged activities aiming to avoid provoking Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, use of weapons by SDF troops on such a mission would be limited to self-defense and emergency evacuation purposes under Article 95 of the SDF law.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Yemen’s Houthi rebels would be present in areas under consideration for the deployment. If SDF troops were to become involved in combat with a national or a quasi-state organization heavily armed with missiles or unmanned aircraft, they would be highly likely be become caught up in armed conflict — a situation banned by the Constitution.
The ministry would consider changing the basis for the SDF troop dispatch to maritime security operations, as stipulated in the SDF law, if the situation in their areas of activity were to escalate, sources familiar with the matter have said. Still, use of weapons by the SDF troops would be limited to the scope of police authority, as maritime security operations are aimed at protecting people’s lives and assets and maintaining security at sea.
As an order for maritime security operations requires Cabinet approval, it is unclear whether the government would have time to complete the necessary procedures under a contingency situation, the sources said.
“Concerns over the safety of SDF troops would not be dispelled in the current situation,” an SDF source said.
With Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying that the government has yet to decide when to dispatch the SDF troops to the Middle East, full and careful preparations are expected to be made for every possible scenario, the sources said. If the SDF operations in the Middle East were to lead to any casualties, however, the government would be dealt a heavy blow, analysts said.