TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - US calls for Japan's help protecting shipping from Iranian attacks have put Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a bind between angering his country's military ally and upsetting voters suspicious of overseas deployments.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo confirmed last week that the US has asked Japan to join naval patrols in the Strait of Hormuz, a subject of much speculation in Tokyo since President Donald Trump accused the country in a tweet last month of being a security freeloader.
Despite weeks of questions, Mr Abe's government has sought to avoid any commitments that could prompt fresh criticism that he's undermining Japan's pacifist constitution.
"Abe is frightened of public opinion on security issues and is frightened of angering Trump" said Professor Garren Mulloy, an international relations expert at Daito Bunka University in Saitama, Japan. "This is primarily about Abe and cabinet indecision."
The stakes are high for Mr Abe's government, which has described safe shipping through the Strait of Hormuz as a "matter of life and death in terms of energy security."
Japan gets 80 per cent of its crude imports from the Middle East, much of it through the choke point at the focus of recent tanker attacks and bickering between Washington and Tehran about US efforts to renegotiate an international nuclear accord with Iran.
While Japan wasn't party to the nuclear agreement, Mr Abe has sought to defuse animosity between the US and Iran. Japan can ill afford to offend Mr Trump, who has threatened punitive tariffs on the country's key auto exports as leverage in trade talks.
"We are at the beginning stages of developing our maritime security initiative," Mr Pompeo told Fox News on Thursday (July 25). "We've asked the Brits, the French, the Germans, the Norwegians, the Japanese, the South Koreans, the Australians - I'm sure I missed a few."
South Korea - another US ally competing with Japan for Washington's support - is considering dispatching a naval unit to take part in a US coalition. Denmark is also mulling such a move, while the UK has separately deployed two ships.
The Trump administration is pressing Japan and South Korea to participate after European nations that were parties to the nuclear deal - and have opposed Mr Trump's decision to quit it - resisted entreaties by the US and formed their own maritime security effort.
The Japanese public remains divided over any deployments. A survey published by TV Tokyo Monday showed 41 per cent of respondents thought Japan should send military vessels, compared with 42 per cent were against the idea.
"When you think about East Asian security, to keep the ear of the US, you have to cooperate in the Middle East," said Ryo Sahashi, associate professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo. "There are reasons why that might be difficult - one is relations between Japan and Iran - but more than that, it's difficult to find a legal basis."
Mr Abe has sought to loosen the restraints of the constitution drafted by the US in the wake of Japan's World War II defeat. In 2015, his coalition passed legislation that allows the so-called Self-Defence Forces to defend other countries under certain circumstances, which sparked massive demonstrations outside parliament and scuffling among lawmakers.
After winning an upper house election a week ago, Mr Abe has reiterated a vow to press ahead with his bid to revise the constitution to make clear the legality of the Self-Defence Forces, a move that could set off a similar reaction.
Despite the constitutional language renouncing "the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes," Japan has previously dispatched troops and ships to various hot spots, after being stung by criticism for "checkbook diplomacy" when it contributed US$13 billion (S$17.81 billion) but no troops to the first Gulf War in 1990-91.
Yet these missions have sometimes been criticised as ineffectual because of military constraints placed on the troops.
Maritime Self-Defence Forces minesweepers were sent to the Persian Gulf in 1991, and Japan took part in a peacekeeping mission in Cambodia from 1992. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi sent ground troops to Iraq following the second Gulf War. More recently, Japan has been contributing to anti-piracy operations off Somalia since 2009.
This time, too, Japan will probably shift toward cooperation, said Assoc Prof Sahashi, of the University of Tokyo. "They will negotiate some kind of low-key cooperation that will at least show Japan is part of the combined task force," he added.