Japan’s dependence on oil imports from the Middle East has made this country acutely sensitive to instability in that region. Constrained by the Constitution, the primary form of state engagement with those countries has been diplomatic. There is a growing sense, however, that Tokyo must rethink that policy and consider new types of activity to secure the national interest. Its decision to weigh dispatching the Maritime Self-Defense Force to that area is part of that reassessment.
The exact nature of that mission remains uncertain, however; if the ships take on security-oriented tasks, rather than information gathering as is their presumed assignment, then the government must prepare the public for the consequences.
Japan’s reliance on Middle East energy supplies is well known. This country gets nearly 90 percent of its oil imports from the region. Last year, 500 Japanese tankers, more than one a day, passed through the Strait of Hormuz.
Less well recognized is the growing role that the region plays in other supply chains, particularly those for petrochemicals. The region’s share of global petrochemical exports reached 30 percent last year. As one example, Japan gets about 17 percent of its aluminum bullion from the Middle East, a tripling of supplies over the last decade. As a result, those 500 tankers, while a significant number, represent less than one-third of the 1,700 Japanese vessels that traversed the strait in 2018.
The attacks on shipping in recent months in the Strait of Hormuz are thus a real threat to the global economy. Two oil tankers, one of which was owned by a Japanese company, were attacked near the strait in June. Maritime transportation costs have risen as a result. Insurance premiums for ships have accelerated since the June tanker attacks and those costs are passed on to consumers.
The United States has historically provided security for the region, ensuring that supply chains are not interrupted. U.S. President Donald Trump is now demanding that allies and partners assume more responsibility for that security. Several have agreed and a broad-based coalition is being formulated.
While Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga acknowledged that “peace and stability in the Middle East is extremely important for the international society, including Japan,” the government declined the U.S. request to join the coalition. Instead, the government decided last week to explore sending its own force to ensure shipping safety, “to pursue our own measures separately.”
The government reportedly plans to deploy MSDF warships to the Gulf of Oman, the Northern Arabian Sea and nearby waters, for the initial purpose of gathering information. If used for that reason, then a new law is not needed: The legislation establishing the Defense Ministry allows the government to dispatch vessels for “survey and research” purposes without prior Diet approval. The government will study whether it can use assets currently deployed to fight piracy in the region or whether new ones are needed.
The decision to become involved is understandable. As long as Japan needs those imports, it should be prepared to secure them. Previously, Japan did not have the means to do so; today it does and it is not right that Japan demand that other countries protect the things that it values but is not prepared to defend itself. Objections that such moves could put SDF personnel “in harm’s way” are disingenuous: That is the reality of the SDF mission.
Dispatch imposes several requirements upon the government. First, it must better explain to the public the reason for its decision and the possible consequences. There can be a debate about whether the SDF should be in the region, but it is wrong to argue that other countries should be protecting supplies and putting themselves in danger on behalf of Japan when it is not ready to do so.
Second, and as part of the transparency surrounding this initiative, there must not be “mission creep” that allows the government to avoid Diet action and approval. While the Defense Ministry’s enabling legislation does permit SDF deployments for specific purposes, the Diet, representing the Japanese people, should have a say if the MSDF must go beyond that limited mandate.
Third, the government must be more active in articulating a diplomatic strategy for the region. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to act as a bridge between the U.S. and Iran, whose links to many of the attacks on shipping have been suspected. Tokyo should make clear to Iran that it is committed to peace and the defense of its assets. It should do what it can to promote peace, but it should also not be deterred from protecting its national interests.