Two Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers, each carrying two patrol helicopters and two speed boats, are steaming to the Gulf of Aden on an antipiracy mission off Somalia. The government has evoked Article 82 of the Self-Defense Forces Law, which allows the SDF to take “maritime police actions” in situations that exceed the capabilities of the Japan Coast Guard.

Since the dispatch is on an interim basis, the Cabinet has also sent to the Diet a bill to allow the SDF to protect not only Japanese ships but also foreign ships against pirates anywhere in the world and to loosen the restrictions on the use of weapons.

Coping with piracy is primarily the duty of the coast guard. (Eight coast guard officers are aboard the two destroyers to handle judicial matters). In addition, Article 82 of the SDF Law originally envisaged use of the SDF only around Japan.

Regrettably the government has not fully explained why it excluded the coast guard when considering the antipiracy mission. The coast guard has had experience of escorting a plutonium nuclear-fuel carrying ship from Europe to Japan and sinking a suspicious North Korean boat.

The MSDF destroyers will escort only Japan-linked ships. Under the SDF Law’s maritime police actions provision, the use of weapons will be limited to legitimate self-defense and for avoiding imminent dangers. The bill endorsed by the Cabinet will allow the SDF to escort foreign ships and allow them to fire at pirate boats that ignore warning shots and approach merchant ships.

Coupled with the government’s position that the use of weapons against pirates, who are criminals, does not fall into the category of the use of weapons overseas as prohibited by the Constitution, the bill could lower the threshold for the use of weapons by the SDF. Under the bill, the government can also send SDF units on antipiracy missions anywhere in the world without Diet approval. The Diet should have serious discussions on these matters. The government should also consider ways to help improve antipiracy capabilities of nations around Somalia and help Somalia stabilize its own situation.

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