Japan’s cabinet of ministers has approved the deployment of the country’s Maritime Self-Defence Force to the Middle East, with the mission said to be the first of its kind since legislation expanding the military’s right to operate abroad stepped into effect four years ago, Kyodo News has reported, citing government sources.
The deployment, which required no parliamentary approval, is expected to include a helicopter-equipped destroyer and several Lockheed P-3C Orion patrol planes, along with about 260 naval personnel.
According to Kyodo’s sources, the operation, based in the Gulf of Oman and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, will be a “survey and research” mission aimed at ensuring security in a crucial maritime route through which as much as 90 percent of Japan’s Middle East-sourced oil passes.
The mission is limited in scope to the protection of Japanese shipping vessels, and will not see operations in the sensitive Strait of Hormuz area. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reportedly approved the mission personally during talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week. After the talks, Rouhani said that Japan had proposed possible “solutions” on how to “break” US sanctions against his country.
The Japanese military aircraft are expected to be deployed and to begin operations in January, with the destroyer to deploy a month later, in February.
Japan Says No to US Coalition
Japan had demonstrably refused to join the US-led coalition, known as the ‘Sentinel programme’, which currently includes the US, the UK, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Albania, Bahrain and the UAE, which Washington began to form during the 2019 Persian Gulf crisis amid the seizure or sabotage of tankers passing through the region.
Under Japan’s constitution, the country’s military is able to deploy for maritime policing missions in an emergency situations to protect Japanese persons or property. The constitution was amended in 2016 by Prime Minister Abe. Before then, the country’s military was limited to territorial defence operations along Japan's borders.
In June, a Japanese tanker was one of two vessels to suffer damage in the Gulf of Oman in an apparent sabotage attack in the midst of a goodwill visit to Tehran by Prime Minister Abe. The US immediately blamed Iran for the apparent sabotage attack, but Japanese officials reportedly were not convinced by the evidence Washington presented at the time.
The long-running diplomatic tiff between Iran and the US escalated into military tensions in May, when the US sent a carrier strike group to the Middle East after citing an unspecified ‘threat’ to US interests in the region. Since then, the Persian Gulf has ben wracked by a string of dangerous incidents, including a series of tanker sabotage attacks, tit-for-tat ship seizures and the destruction of a $220 million US spy drone in the Strait of Hormuz by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.