Komeito, the Liberal Democratic Party’s junior coalition partner, approved Tuesday a draft plan to dispatch Self-Defense Forces personnel to the Middle East, setting the stage for Cabinet approval next week.
The LDP had already endorsed the plan to send a helicopter-carrying destroyer and a P-3C patrol plane to the region, along with around 250 Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel.
Sending the SDF overseas is a sensitive issue as engagement in a foreign conflict could violate the war-renouncing Constitution. Komeito had been more cautious about the dispatch plan, which is expected to be endorsed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet on Monday.
The mission until next December is aimed at enhancing the SDF’s intelligence-gathering capabilities and helping to ensure the safe navigation of ships. It could be extended upon Cabinet approval, according to the draft plan.
In an emergency, the SDF could switch to maritime policing, which allows the use of weapons, to protect Japanese shipping.
The government initially explored the possibility of extending protection to foreign ships with Japanese nationals aboard.
But it has decided to limit protection to Japanese-registered vessels as international maritime law only permits the use of force to protect a country’s own vessels, government sources said Tuesday.
According to the Japanese Shipowners’ Association, only 10.5 percent of vessels associated with domestic shipping companies are Japanese registered, while 57.4 percent operate under the Panamanian flag.
Tokyo has decided not to join a U.S.-led coalition for maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz — one of the world’s most important passageways for oil — out of concern that doing so could hurt its friendly ties with Iran.
Tokyo has been seeking to broker dialogue between them by leveraging its good relations with both Tehran and Washington.
SDF personnel will stay away from the strait near Iran and will instead be dispatched to the Gulf of Oman, the northern part of the Arabian Sea, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, according to the draft plan. Defense Minister Taro Kono is expected to order the dispatch in January.
The government will be required to report to the Diet when the Cabinet makes decisions regarding the SDF’s Middle East mission.
“It is something that Komeito has strongly demanded,” Shigeki Sato, who chairs the party’s panel on diplomacy and security, told reporters after it endorsed the government plan.
The public is divided over the issue, with 51.5 percent of respondents in a recent Kyodo News poll opposing the plan and 33.7 percent expressing support.
Tensions in the Middle East remain high amid the U.S.-Iran standoff over a 2015 nuclear deal, with Washington blaming Tehran for a series of attacks on oil tankers.
Japan has already informed Iran of its intention to send the SDF ahead of a visit to Tokyo later in the week by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.