TOKYO: Japan's Defense Ministry is considering dispatching a destroyer to the Middle East based on the law on its establishment under the government's plan to send a Maritime Self-Defense Force unit to the region to gather information for ensuring safe navigation of Japanese commercial vessels, it was learned Monday.
In line with the plan, the ministry is mulling converting one of the two patrol planes sent to Djibouti in northeastern Africa to engage in an anti-piracy mission for the information-gathering activity, sources familiar with the matter said. Along with the planes, a Japanese destroyer is on the anti-piracy mission.
The ministry is also studying a specific area of the possible new destroyer mission. As approval from the Diet, Japan's parliament, is not required for sending a Self-Defence Forces unit under the law, however, there are concerns that the possible dispatch could be made without sufficient deliberations.
Last month, the government said it will consider an SDF dispatch to areas stretching mainly from the Gulf of Oman to the eastern side of the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb between Yemen and Djibouti, in order to beef up intelligence-gathering for the safety of Japanese commercial ships traveling in the region, while noting that the country will not participate in a U.S.-proposed coalition initiative for maritime security there.
The government did not refer to the Strait of Hormuz, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says is critically important in terms of energy security.
According to the Japanese Shipowners Association, a total of some 3,900 Japanese-linked ships pass the Strait of Hormuz a year. Some lawmakers in the Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling coalition are calling for a destroyer to be sent to the Arabian Gulf, which connects to the Strait of Hormuz.
For the Djibouti-based anti-piracy mission, two Japanese destroyers had been initially used. The number was reduced to one in 2016 reflecting a decrease in pirates in the region.
The government plans to ask Oman, with which Japan has defense exchanges, for cooperation in refueling for the destroyer that would be additionally dispatched and the patrol plane that would be converted for the information-gathering activity, because the Gulf of Oman is about 2,000 kilometers away from Djibouti, the sources said. The patrol plane may initially fly over the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, near Djibouti, the sources said.
The government is considering the destroyer dispatch under the Defense Ministry establishment law's Article 4, which calls for conducting necessary research and surveys. The article is used as a basis for the SDF's routine surveillance activities around Japan, the sources said.
The law having no clause related to the use of force. A senior ministry official said that it is possible for a uniformed commander to issue orders to SDF units under the law.
In the past, the government sent SDF troops to Iraq by establishing a special law. During Diet debates on the legislation, the ruling and opposition parties had heated discussions on whether the location for the troops' activities was a combat or noncombat area.
There are no provision in the Defense Ministry establishment law requiring the creation of basic operation plans or implementation rules, allowing orders to be issued anytime at the discretion of the government.
While an idea is being studied for the envisaged destroyer dispatch to be formalized by a cabinet decision, it remains to be seen how the government would disclose information on activities of the destroyer to the public.
As the law also has no provision on authorizing the use of force, the ministry is considering basing the possible use of arms by SDF troops during the Middle East mission on Article 95 of the SDF law, the sources said.
The ministry plans to compile rules of engagement so that the captain of the destroyer would be able to swiftly make a decision on the use of weapons when needed, the sources said.
Still, shooting aimed at hurting opponents would be allowed only for the purpose of self-defense and in emergency situations.