Japan to deploy destroyer to Middle East

A photo taken on Aug 1, 2015, shows a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force P3-C Orion surveillance aircraft flying over an oil tanker at the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia. PHOTO: REUTERS/KYODO

TOKYO (NYTIMES) - Japan will send defence forces early next year to patrol regional shipping lanes in the Middle East, from which it sources much of its crude oil, the government announced on Friday (Dec 27).

The rare overseas deployment, which will be limited to intelligence-gathering, is meant to ensure the "security" of Japanese merchant ships and help maintain "peace and stability" in the region, the Cabinet office said in a statement.

The decision follows a series of attacks on oil tankers in the region, one of which was Japanese-operated.

The deployment will include one destroyer, equipped with helicopters, and at least one of two P-3C patrol planes currently engaged in anti-piracy operations near Somalia.

It will be tasked with collecting information that "directly impacts the security of vessels navigating" the region, according to the Cabinet office, which approved the plan on Friday. The mission has been authorised for one year and can be extended.

The announcement follows a meeting last week in Tokyo between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, whose country the United States has blamed for attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman in June.

The US has called for an international coalition to protect ships in the region, but only a few of its allies have joined that mission.

The Japanese mission will be independent of any other nation's deployments in the area, the Cabinet office said on Friday.

But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, speaking at a regular press briefing, said intelligence-gathering operations could be conducted in "coordination with relevant countries".

Japan imports about 90 per cent of its crude oil from the Middle East, and "given the rising tensions, it is necessary to strengthen our information collection system for ensuring the safety of Japanese vessels", Mr Suga said.

Japan has come under pressure from President Donald Trump to play a more active role in protecting its interests in the Middle East.

Mr Trump has complained that the country pays "zero compensation" for US patrols of shipping lanes in the region.

He has also demanded that Tokyo cover more of the costs of stationing US troops in Japan.

Japan's pacifist Constitution limits its ability to participate in international military coalitions.

Mr Abe has moved to change that, despite public opposition, by issuing a reinterpretation of the Constitution and campaigning to amend it.

The new deployment will be limited to the northern Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Gulf of Aden, the Cabinet office said.

Japan's Maritime Self-Defence Force operates a base in Djibouti, which was established in 2011 as a staging area for anti-piracy operations.

The government is describing the deployment as an "investigation and research" mission.

The participating forces are not authorised to use weapons to protect other ships against attack, the Cabinet office said.

However, if the situation warrants, the mission could be converted to a "maritime policing operation", a designation that would allow the destroyer and planes to defend other vessels.

The Maritime Self-Defence Force will not patrol the vital shipping lanes that run through the Strait of Hormuz.

Analysts said that decision was meant to avoid giving the impression that Japan was taking sides with the US against Iran, with which it has long maintained friendly relations.

The June attack on the Japanese-operated tanker in the Gulf of Oman occurred while Mr Abe was on an official visit to Iran.

The US blamed the attack on Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which the US has labelled a terrorist organisation.

Japan has been careful to keep up good relations with Iran, and Mr Abe has positioned himself to act as a possible intermediary between Teheran and Washington.

Mr Abe briefed Mr Rouhani on Japan's mission to the Middle East during their meeting last week, according to NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster.

He also encouraged Mr Rouhani to adhere to Iran's commitments under the 2015 agreement that froze its nuclear programme.

Iran has been incrementally reducing its commitment to the agreement as it seeks relief from heavy economic sanctions imposed on the country by Mr Trump, following his decision to withdraw the US from the pact.

Analysts say that Mr Rouhani's Japan trip was meant to signal a willingness to reopen long-stalled talks with Washington over Iran's nuclear programme.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.