Commentary / World

Japan's 'trilemma' in the Strait of Hormuz

by Yoichiro Sato

Contributing Writer

The United States has raised with its allies, including Japan, the possibility of forming a coalition of the willing to protect commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb (at the east end of the Red Sea) in the Middle East. Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya was quick to note that Japan is not thinking about exercising its right to collective self-defense. Meanwhile, another Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and a defense expert, Akihisa Nagashima, commented on Facebook that it would be appropriate for Japan to invoke the “maritime patrol” clause in the Self-Defense Forces Law as a unilateral action in order to help sweep mines from the sea lanes.

This reluctance within the LDP against dispatching the Maritime Self-Defense Force specifically under the 2015 security legislation, which partially opened the door for Japan to engage in collective self-defense, reflects the legal limitations this nation faces. Japan’s participation will be limited by its scope of permissible activities.

Keeping the Middle Eastern sea lanes safe for transporting oil is a common interest among major Asian countries, including China, Japan, South Korea and India. Although the U.S. has been a key provider of maritime security in the Middle East, its interest lies in a more general political stability of the region, which serves its economic and geostrategic interests. The U.S. gets most of its oil domestically, and crude coming from Iraq and Saudi Arabia amounts to only around 20 percent of its total oil imports. Thus, sharing in the cost of defending the “common good” (sea lane safety) is a responsibility of these Asian countries.

The current threats against safe passage of oil tankers through the Middle Eastern sea lanes are multifold. The Iranian Navy is the primary threat in the Strait of Hormuz, as its Revolutionary Guards boats unsuccessfully attempted to divert a British tanker on July 11. The ongoing tension over the breakdown of the nuclear agreement and the related economic sanctions have elevated the risk of skirmishes like this. Iran has also armed the Houthi rebel group inside Yemen. The ongoing civil war in Yemen also left terror groups affiliated with al-Qaida active in the region. Somali pirates also operate in the Sea of Aden. These are all potential threats to the sea traffic through the Bab el-Mandeb waterway and the Gulf of Aden.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attempted to mediate between the U.S. and Iran by visiting Tehran in June. His effort failed to ease the tension, and Iran resumed its uranium enrichment, exceeding the limits imposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran was one of Japan’s major oil suppliers until Tokyo went along with U.S.-led sanctions this spring, and resuming imports is important for Japan. Moreover, other major sources of oil for Japan (such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Iraq) would all be vulnerable to a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz by Iran if U.S.-Iran relations grow even worse. Abe faces a “trilemma”: stay out of the emerging coalition maritime patrol/escort operation at the risk of angering the U.S.; join the coalition and damage a key diplomatic relationship with Iran; and lose domestic support by adopting either policy.

This tough diplomatic challenge, however, is also an opportunity for Abe. The ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China is costing China huge economic losses. An incentive in favor of an honorable cease-fire in the trade war may emerge as the U.S. presidential election in November 2020 draws near. Prolonged sanctions against Iran may weaken the hardliners within Tehran’s leadership circle, enabling a return to the original nuclear agreement and a few additional concessions to effectively bring most of Iran’s nuclear activities under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime.

China may refrain from supporting Iran if it sees that the U.S. does not intend to effect regime change in Iran (unlike in Iraq in 2003). There is more to do diplomatically in order to minimize Russian support for Tehran, if the coalition operation is to be meaningful. Thus far, Abe has not exhausted available channels for diplomatic mediation, and Japan’s participation in the sea lane security coalition should be designed to leave these windows as wide open as possible.

Japan is already taking part in anti-piracy patrol and escort missions in the Sea of Aden, using two destroyers on rotation and maritime patrol planes based in Djibouti. The threats in this area are in principle nonstate actors, despite some suspicions about Iranian ties. Law enforcement against them with permissible use of force for self-defense has been carried out under the Anti-Piracy Law since 2010. Preventive use of arms against those who obstruct navigation is possible under this law, and under the “maritime patrol” clause the MSDF vessels are authorized to act in self-defense.

Iran can reasonably dissociate itself from the threatening nonstate entities. Adding another pair of destroyers on rotation to the area could relieve two U.S. ships from the Somali coast, if Japan more explicitly authorizes protection of a multinational commercial convoy. At present, the Japanese mission can protect foreign vessels that happen to be in the vicinity of the Japanese flotilla. China’s navy is also conducting anti-piracy missions in the area, but only protects its national vessels. China can be encouraged to work more closely with the coalition. South Korea should also contribute to the coalition.

On the other hand, it would be advisable for Japan to keep its distance from the U.S. operation in the Strait of Hormuz. The chance of “war” against the Iranian state is greater here, and Japan’s constraints on collective self-defense would cause practical problems, even if the MSDF was operating “unilaterally” in terms of the enabling law. Not shooting back when a U.S. warship has come under attack by an Iranian missile boat would be a political nightmare, and one Japan should not risk. If the practical need exists, refueling (outside the Persian Gulf) coalition ships that take part in the Hormuz patrol/escort operation might be considered by Japan.

Coalition operations entail participation of varying degrees and modes. While experienced military leaders understand such political dynamics, politicians in the U.S. often lack sensitivity to Washington’s allies. So far, coordinating allies’ contributions is being done very quietly. It is the right approach.

Yoichiro Sato is a professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture.

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