National / Politics | The Argument: SDF Dispatch

Sending more SDF assets to Mideast will protect Japan's interests and raise its diplomatic profile

by Tomomi Inada

Special to The Japan Times

The Argument is a new feature dedicated to promoting dialogue and deeper understanding of contentious issues by introducing various viewpoints.

The government’s plan to send the Self-Defense Forces to the Middle East is crucial for securing our economic interests, promoting regional peace and stability, and pursuing balanced diplomacy in the region.

Japan imports 80 percent of its crude oil through the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping route linking Middle East oil suppliers to markets in the rest of the world. The area around the strait — which lies between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman — is also a flashpoint. This was made all too clear in the attacks on two oil tankers, including one operated by a Japanese shipping firm, on June 13, the day Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Although the attack took place far from Japan, it threatened our peace and prosperity.

Consider that about 3,900 Japan-related vessels pass through the Strait of Hormuz each year, while 1,800 or so such ships move through the Bab el-Mandeb strait, another oil chokepoint. Peace and stability in the region are vital to our national interests. Therefore, dispatching SDF destroyers and utilizing SDF assets already operating in the region for monitoring and intelligence-gathering missions are very important for Japan, in that our presence can contribute to safer navigation of vessels in the region.

Another point to note is that this plan is under Japan’s own initiative and is not part of the U.S.-led initiative to safeguard shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

Launching an independent initiative will allow us to secure our national interest as a sovereign state, while at the same time balancing relations with the U.S. and Iran — two nations with which our prime minister has built friendly ties.

The SDF has a track record of conducting anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden as part of international efforts from Japan’s base in Djibouti.

During my stint as defense minister between 2016 and 2017, I inspected the units participating in anti-piracy operations in Djibouti and realized that both the local people as well as the countries affected by piracy were grateful for Japan’s efforts.

Historically, Japan has had a good relationship with Iran, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is one of the very few world leaders who can hold direct talks with Khamenei.

The prime minister has also created a relationship of trust with U.S. President Donald Trump. Even if we don’t take part in the U.S.-led initiative, we can cooperate with it and with other maritime initiatives in the region: one led by Europe, backed by France, and another led by India.

By cooperating with other countries, Japan can play a role, show our commitment to proactive pacifism in the region and enhance our diplomatic presence.

As the executive acting secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party, I acknowledge that there are opinions for and against the dispatch within the party. One dissenting view pertains to the legal basis for the dispatch, which will engage in “research and investigation” activities under the law that established the Defense Ministry. Using this framework, the government envisions gathering information and monitoring Middle East waterways.

A possible problem with this legal basis, opponents argue, is that under research and monitoring missions per se, the SDF is not allowed to exercise any substantial authority, including via use of weapons. To counter this problem, the government can broaden the scope of SDF options in emergencies by invoking “maritime security operations” under the Self-Defense Forces Law. This clause — with the condition of Cabinet approval — grants the SDF elements policing authority and enables them to protect Japan-related vessels.

Based on my interpretation of Japanese law, they do not rule out the possibility of protecting U.S. military vessels, etc. in the Middle East, if the situation were to meet the conditions that the law requires. The government is now considering what specific activities the SDF would be able to engage in.

Under Article 95-2 of the Self-Defense Forces Law, the SDF is allowed to use weapons to protect foreign military vessels, such as those operated by the United States Navy, that are engaging in “activities that contribute to the defense of Japan.” Those activities include joint exercises and monitoring missions.

Then there is the question of whether the protection of foreign private ships is possible under Japanese law.

The maritime security operations clause of the Self-Defense Forces Law allows the SDF to defend Japan-related commercial vessels and tankers, but not their foreign counterparts. Nonetheless, personally I think it is permissible to conduct certain activities for their aid on humanitarian grounds when they are in trouble.

With regard to the fear that the dispatch could drag Japan into war, the situation there at present is not so dangerous as to warrant such concerns.

However, I don’t intend to ignore these concerns. The government is sending the SDF on the premise that there won’t be a conflict in the area. If by any chance the situation worsens to that point, the government would need to order the SDF units to withdraw, reconsider the situation and explain to our people what contributions the SDF could make.

The international community is watching the planned SDF dispatch to the Middle East. France, India and the U.S. are paying attention. Since last spring, several incidents have occurred, such as the attacks on the two oil tankers in June and those on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in September. Against this backdrop, I believe Japan should contribute to the region’s peace and prosperity, a condition on which our own peace and prosperity in large part depend, in an even more proactive manner.

Tomomi Inada is executive acting secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party and a former defense minister.

The Argument: Should Japan send the MSDF to the Middle East?