The Cabinet on Friday formally adopted a plan to deploy a Self-Defense Forces unit for an intelligence-gathering mission in the sea off Yemen and Oman amid strained tensions over Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

According to the plan, Japan will send a destroyer that can carry one or two patrol helicopters in early February, with hopes that the vessel can start operations by the end of the same month in the Gulf of Oman, the northern part of the Arabian Sea and the eastern side of the Bab el-Mande Strait.

The Defense Ministry is preparing to send Takanami, a 4,650-ton destroyer that can carry one anti-submarine patrol helicopter.

Tokyo also plans to mobilize two P-3C anti-submarine patrol airplanes that are currently engaging in anti-piracy patrol missions off Somalia for the planned intelligence activities.

About 200 crew members will be aboard the destroyer and about 60 staffers will be mobilized for the P-3C unit. The government plans to spend ¥4.68 billion on the dispatch in fiscal 2020, government officials said.

The dispatch program will continue for one year and can be extended.

The decision comes ahead of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s planned visit to Saudi Arabia early next month. Abe’s trip will also coincide with an expected fifth step early next month by Iran to further reduce its obligations under the 2015 deal designed to freeze its nuclear program.

Tehran has threatened to take a new step to reduce its obligations every 60 days, pressuring Western countries including France, Britain and Japan to ease or defy the U.S.-imposed economic sanctions against Iran.

Military tensions in the region sharply rose in June, when two oil tankers, including one carrying oil bound for Japan, were attacked by an unidentified party while Abe was in Tehran for a rare visit to the Islamic Republic by a Japanese prime minister.

“The peace and stability of the Middle East is extremely important for the international society including our country,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on Friday, pointing out the region is crucial for the nation’s crude oil imports.

The security situation there does not pose any danger that immediately requires the protection of Japan-related tankers, but Tokyo now needs to “strengthen intelligence-gathering functions to secure the safety of Japan-related ships,” Suga said, explaining the reason for the SDF mission.

Any overseas deployment of the SDF is a politically sensitive issue in light of the war-renouncing Constitution, which strictly limits SDF operations to those for defending the country.

This time Abe’s Cabinet did not enact a special law for the mission. Instead, it invoked a law concerning the “investigation and research” activities of the SDF, which drew heavy fire from critics and opposition lawmakers as a loophole for the legal restrictions governing the operations of the defense forces abroad.

Under this law, there are no geographic restrictions imposed on the SDF’s “investigation and research” activities, allowing Tokyo to send a destroyer and anti-submarine planes to waters thousands of kilometers away from Japanese territory in spite of high military tensions in the area linked to Iran’s nuclear development program.

The SDF mission also does not require approval from the Diet or even the prime minister. Legally, the defense minister alone can make the decision to issue an order to send the SDF on such a mission anywhere in the world.

Apparently with this criticism in mind, Abe’s government this time made a “Cabinet decision,” which requires the consent of all ministers, to formally adopt the dispatch plan. The Cabinet decision also obliges the government to report the result of the dispatch to the Diet when the mission concludes, Suga emphasized at the news conference.

“We have decided to make a Cabinet decision to make clear our accountability for the nation,” Suga said.

Washington had urged Tokyo to join a U.S.-led coalition patrol force in the Strait of Hormuz, called the International Maritime Security Construct. Tokyo, however, has decided to deploy its own “independent” unit to the areas excluding the Strait of Hormuz, seeking to maintain a relatively good relationship with Iran, which provided 5.2 percent of crude oil supplies for Japan in 2017.

Senior Japanese officials, however, said the SDF unit will “cooperate” with the U.S.-led force and may provide it with intelligence.

Under the plan, the SDF unit won’t be authorized to use any weapons to defend other ships.

But in the event of an emergency, Tokyo could invoke an SDF law and put the unit on maritime policing operations, which would allow the destroyer and aircraft to use weapons to defend Japanese-flagged ships, officials said.

However, under international law, the SDF unit engaging in maritime policing activities would not be allowed to use weapons to defend foreign-flag ships. Most oil tankers operated by Japanese firms are registered in foreign countries due to low operating costs there.

During a news conference later the day, Defense Minister Taro Kono did not elaborate when asked whether and how the SDF unit could defend such a foreign-flagged ship operated by a Japanese firm.

Kono just said the SDF will “make a decision based on individual situations” and possible defense tactics would include giving a verbal warning to a party assaulting a foreign-flagged ship and deploying a destroyer close to the situation.

Japanese defense officials have repeatedly emphasized that the situation in the Middle East does not constitute an imminent danger and that the government has no plans to put the SDF on a maritime policing mission for now.

However, experts question whether Japan could maintain neutrality if a military clash between Iran and the U.S.-led coalition force broke out in the Middle East with an SDF unit was nearby.

U.S. President Donald Trump has demanded that Japan defend its own oil tankers navigating the Strait of Hormuz, the key military choke point located on Iran’s doorstep and at the entrance to the Persian Gulf.

Japan imports nearly 90 percent of its crude oil from the Middle East, and about 80 percent of it is transported through the Strait of Hormuz.

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