The Argument is a new feature dedicated to promoting dialogue and deeper understanding of contentious issues by introducing various viewpoints.
From my long experience serving in the government, there is no way we can send more Self-Defense Forces vessels and planes to the waterways in the Middle East because they can do almost nothing, and it would be a mistake to dispatch the SDF under the dubious legal basis of “research and investigation.”
In emergency scenarios, like attacks on Japanese commercial vessels and tankers, the government could activate the maritime policing measure under the Self-Defense Forces Law to protect those vessels. But if the attacker is the military of a third country or such an equivalent, the SDF can only engage in self-defense and cannot resort to the use of force to protect Japanese vessels in reality because such an act is banned by the Constitution.
If the SDF’s responses are limited to maritime policing measures and the exercise of self-defense in the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea and the strait of Bab el-Mandeb in an emergency, there will be no option but for the SDF to fight Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
The SDF has been conducting anti-piracy operations near Somalia in the Gulf of Aden from its base in Djibouti, so there’s no need for an additional deployment of patrol ships and planes for research purposes regarding the safety of ships passing through the region.
I worked as an official at the former Defense Agency and the Defense Ministry, and served Prime Ministers Junichiro Koizumi, Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso as assistant chief Cabinet secretary for national security and crisis management from 2004 to 2009. I was involved in the deployment of the SDF for reconstruction efforts in Iraq, for a refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan, and for anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
Based on my experience in government, the Abe administration’s planned dispatch of the SDF must have its origins in strong pressure from Washington to join the U.S.-led coalition to beef up security around the Strait of Hormuz.
But in the first place, the root of the problem is that the Trump administration unilaterally pulled out of the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran and imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The crisis will remain unless Washington retracts its sanctions.
Japan is being called upon by the international community to take the initiative to de-escalate the crisis. The latest dispatch plan is being conducted out of consideration for the U.S., and such an illogical diplomatic effort will not bear fruit. U.S. President Donald Trump is calling on the rest of the world to defend their own vessels, but he has no right to say that because he is the one who is sowing the seeds of conflict.
To protect oil tankers, the SDF must be given a clear purpose and authority under law, and it would be odd to dispatch forces out of political consideration for the U.S. This mission contrasts greatly with the SDF’s anti-piracy missions that have been continuing off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden since 2009.
In short, the SDF shouldn’t be deployed just for the sake of showcasing Japan’s presence. There needs to be a clear purpose.
There is also a problem with the application of maritime police actions in the face of a national adversary or a similar organization. The SDF is not allowed to use weapons except for self-defense, so the SDF would not be able to sink an opponent’s vessel, for example, as that would constitute “excessive defense,” which is not allowed under current law. The use of police authority is strictly limited to self-defense, and under the rules of engagement, SDF elements can only take opponents into custody, not destroy their vessels.
In reality, if the SDF detected a missile launch orchestrated by an organization in Iran, it wouldn’t be able to attack Iran’s military facilities by law. And if we sent destroyers to the Mideast, it would be impossible to prevent drone or missile attacks due to technical limitations. Japan also cannot send a threatening message, because that would then constitute the threat of use of force, which Japan has renounced under the Constitution.
Deciding not to join the U.S.-led coalition was right, considering Japan’s friendly relations with Iran. There must be a certain element of understanding within the government that Japan has to do something when tankers are attacked in the Strait of Hormuz, including one operated by a Japanese shipping firm.
From my experience of working for the government, I cannot understand the research mission for the SDF. That’s because there would be little impact to the region basically whether there was an SDF presence outside the Persian Gulf or not. The issue is not to pressure Iran to take action, but to mediate between the U.S. and Iran.
Members of the Liberal Democratic Party argue that the application of maritime police measures would make the use of force possible, but the tankers would not be protected under the severe restraints on the use of force.
Proponents of the SDF dispatch say the move would help stabilize the Middle East and allow information-sharing on suspicious vessels. But the crux of the argument is that it is the U.S. that pulled out of the agreement with Iran and is raising tensions there. After all, the military forces are a political tool. Japan has been involved in efforts to arrest pirates off Somalia, but what’s the mission of the dispatch under consideration? Stabilizing the Middle East is not the mission of the SDF.
The government has said the Strait of Hormuz is one potential area for an SDF dispatch, but if that’s the case there would be little recourse for the SDF to deal with an attack if it were left with the ability to apply maritime police operations alone in an emergency. If the government was considering a dispatch to the Strait of Hormuz, the SDF would have to join the U.S.-led coalition.
Japan enacted the international peace cooperation act in 2015. It enables Japan to contribute toward multinational forces.
Should a conflict break out between the U.S. and Iran, Japan could provide rear-area logistical support to U.S. military operations, which would put Japan at war with Iran.
Kyoji Yanagisawa served as assistant chief Cabinet secretary in charge of national security and crisis management. He is now director of the International Geopolitics Institute Japan.