Japan’s decision to send its navy to the Middle East for independent information-gathering activities instead of participating in a U.S.-led coalition is being seen as a “product of compromise” by experts.
In the weeks leading up to the government’s formal approval of the dispatch on Friday, Tokyo had to play a delicate balancing act between avoiding tensions with longtime ally Washington and maintaining its traditionally friendly ties with Tehran.
Blaming Iran for attacks on oil tankers in May and June in the Persian Gulf region, the United States has sought Japan and other countries to join the coalition for maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz, while Iran has urged them not to take part, saying the stationing of foreign military forces could put the area at risk.
By deciding to send the Maritime Self-Defense Force to the region but excluding areas in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, Japan has secured endorsements on the dispatch from both the United States and Iran.
“In an attempt to please the United States, avoid irritating Iran and get along with Komeito, the Liberal Democratic Party came to this decision,” said Hideki Uemura, a Ryutsu Keizai University professor.
Uemura said the LDP, which forms the ruling coalition with junior partner Komeito, hammered out the plan not because of the need to carry out “survey and research” activities or analyze the security situation in the region, but for “political-power balance” purposes.
Sending the Self-Defense Forces overseas is a politically sensitive issue because their activities are highly restricted by Article 9 of the war-renouncing Constitution.
The LDP has set the term for the MSDF mission at one year and stipulated that important future decisions regarding the dispatch, such as extending its duration, require approval from the Cabinet.
The stipulations were made to help persuade Komeito, which is reluctant to send the SDF overseas, to go along with the plan.
In an emergency, the MSDF could engage in maritime policing actions, with the SDF law allowing personnel to take necessary steps, including the use of weapons at sea, to safeguard Japanese lives and property.
But Uemura, who is well-versed in international politics, phrased this action as the “unusable last resort,” saying Tokyo “has never assumed that such emergency cases could actually occur.”
“I think the government wants to deliver a message to members of the MSDF that they should stay away from any dangerous things and places, given that the main mission for them is just to be there for one year and come back home safely,” Uemura said.
Kazuo Takahashi, a professor emeritus at the Open University of Japan, also said the prime purpose of the dispatch is having the MSDF stationed in the Middle East — no more, no less.
Japan plans to send about 260 MSDF members to the region with a helicopter-carrying destroyer and two patrol planes.
The dispatch certainly doesn’t mean that Japan will be exchanging fire with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said Takahashi, an expert on the Middle East. The important thing is just to send an MSDF ship, he added.
Takahashi said the United States should be blamed for the rising tensions, noting that it has broken a 2015 nuclear agreement signed between Iran and major powers.
“So I understand the feelings of other countries that they didn’t want to participate in the U.S.-led coalition,” he said.
Last year, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the multinational deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program, re-imposing economic sanctions on the country. In the end, the coalition was formed by only seven countries.
Takahashi described the government’s decision as an “agonizing choice.”
He said Japan had to do something because so many oil tankers operated by Japanese firms pass through the Strait of Hormuz.
The government has said it is arranging to use Salalah port in Oman as a supply base for the destroyer, which Takahashi sees as a positive development, “because Oman has maintained a good relationship with Iran, too.”
“Oman has mediated between the United States and Iran, and it also holds the key to Iran-Saudi Arabia relations,” Takahashi said.
Tomoaki Murakami, an associate professor at the University of Marketing and Distribution Sciences in Kobe, said the strengthening of Japan’s intelligence-gathering is a realistic aim.
“Although there are no imminent threats in the Middle East, it’s essential to collect information on its own in preparation for a sudden change in the situation,” Murakami said.
For a country that relies on the Middle East for about 90 percent of its crude oil imports, Murakami said it is meaningful to engage in “proactive efforts” for peace and stability in the region, and such intelligence-gathering activities are indispensable to that end.
The limiting of the mission to one year is rational, Murakami said, citing the possibility of U.S.-Iran detente, which makes the upcoming dispatch different from other SDF missions.