With the Maritime Self-Defense Force having fully started its information-gathering mission in the Middle East as part of the effort to ensure sea lane safety there, concerns over what its contingent can effectively do to that end—given its operational limits—continue to grip the government.

Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stressed that the dispatch of two P-3C patrol aircraft and the Takanami destroyer to the region is intended to help secure the safety of ships related to Japan, what the MSDF units can do is limited because they are not allowed to use armed force to protect foreign-registered ships even if they are linked to Japan.

The P-3C planes and the destroyer began their operations in January and February, respectively.

“The situation in the Middle East is relatively stable now, but could change suddenly any time,” a senior Self-Defense Forces official said.

The MSDF had been cautious about the mission from the beginning. When Washington asked Tokyo last July to join a U.S.-led coalition to ensure maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz, the official pointed out that there are legal limits on what the SDF can do.

While Japan opted to send the MSDF units without participating in the coalition, some within the SDF were critical of the decision. “Do we have to follow the moves by U.S. President Donald Trump?” one official said, noting that the current U.S.-Iran tensions stemmed from Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and major powers including the United States.

“We would need to respond differently depending on the types of ships,” MSDF Capt. Yosuke Inaba, who commands the mission, told reporters at the MSDF base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, in early February before the Takanami’s departure to the Middle East.

Inaba was picked as the mission commander for his experience, including having operated an Aegis destroyer and having worked with the U.S. military.

If the security situation in the Middle East were to deteriorate, maritime security operations would be ordered based on the SDF law, with MSDF units being dispatched to protect vessels linked to Japan.

Under international law, however, the MSDF units can only use force to protect Japanese-registered ships, according to the Cabinet Secretariat. They cannot do so for foreign-flagged ships under armed attack even if they are operated by Japanese shipping firms.

On the high seas, ships are protected by countries where they are registered in principle.

Some 80 percent of Japan-linked ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz, a key sea lane for Middle East crude oil, are foreign-flagged vessels.

While Defense Minister Taro Kono has said the MSDF units would “take actions that do not involve the use of force” to protect such foreign-registered ships, some believe that such measures will be ineffective in stopping armed groups from attacking the vessels.

“It’s like protecting (the ships) with only one unarmed vessel,” an SDF official said.

Separately, the Takanami will also need to visit ports in Middle East countries that are friendly to Japan for resupply. But there are concerns that the destroyer may be denied entry in the wake of outbreaks of the new coronavirus in Japan.

According to the Defense Ministry, none of some 200 MSDF members on the destroyer has shown symptoms related to the virus.

At a news conference, Kono indicated that the Takanami will be allowed to make a port call at its next destination, adding that thorough measures to prevent infection will be taken on the ship and during its visits to ports in the region.

If any MSDF members develop symptoms, they will be initially isolated in an area on the ship and then transported using a helicopter carried by the destroyer.

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