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Last month the government decided to send more Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels to the Middle East to protect its shipping interests in the volatile region on its own, instead of joining the U.S.-led coalition for this task.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated sharply since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the multilateral 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions in May last year.
The acrimony heightened security risks in the region. In June, two tankers, including one run by a Japanese company, were attacked near the Strait of Hormuz while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran visiting Iran’s leaders as a mediator for the U.S., which blamed Iran for the attacks.
The Japanese initiative reflects an attempt to follow a balanced diplomatic strategy to protect relations with both the United States and Iran, which traditionally has been friendly with Japan. Tokyo is resisting pressure from Washington to send Self-Defense Forces assets to the coalition out of concern it would anger Tehran. At the same time, however, it wants to show its commitment to stability in the Middle East.
Defense Minister Taro Kono told reporters on Sunday that he explained Japan’s plan to ministers from the region and heard no objections.
“None of them gave me a negative response, so I take it as them understanding Japan’s step to consider the dispatch,” said Kono, who visited Bahrain to attend this year’s International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue and bilateral meetings.
At home, however, the dispatch has drawn criticism from within and outside the government about its legality. The government is thinking about sending the additional destroyers and patrol planes to the Gulf of Oman, the northern Arabian Sea and the eastern part of the Bab el-Mandeb strait near Djibouti to conduct “research and investigation” activities. Some argue that applying this rationale, which is part of the law that established the Defense Ministry and spelled out its basic functions, stretches its interpretation beyond its envisioned scope.
Others worry that the SDF won’t be able to help private vessels and will only be able to use its weapons for self-defense and evacuations. But the government says there is a way around these restrictions in an emergency: The defense minister, with approval from the prime minister, can order the commander of the MSDF fleet to engage in maritime security operations to aid such vessels under the Self-Defense Forces Law. That prospect has prompted critics to raise another concern: that the SDF could be pulled into a war.
Will the next deployment improve security in the Middle East or put Japan at greater risk of conflict?
The Japan Times asked two experts, Tomomi Inada, interviewed by staff writer Masumi Koizumi, and Kyoji Yanagisawa, by Osamu Tsukimori, for their opinions.