Photo/IllutrationA Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer, Kirisame, departs from a port in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, for the sea area off Somalia. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Japanese officials are apparently scrambling to determine how to respond to a possible U.S. request to join a military coalition to secure maritime safety in the Strait of Hormuz off Iran.

Several Defense Ministry officials on July 10 said Washington has not sounded out Tokyo on the proposal made by Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, on July 9.

However, there is a high possibility that the United States will ask Japan to take part in the military coalition.

Such a request would put Japan in a legal quandary over participation of the Self-Defense Forces in overseas activities.

“Japan and the United States are closely communicating with each other,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami said at a July 10 news conference when asked about Dunford’s proposal. “But I want to refrain from talking about the details.”

A high-ranking official of the Foreign Ministry said the United States was likely still in the stage of thinking about the content of the activities.

A Defense Ministry official also declined to comment: “I don’t have materials to discuss what the United States is trying to do and what requests it made to Japan.”

Dunford made the proposal at a time of escalating friction between the United States and Iran over its nuclear program and maritime incidents in the Strait of Hormuz. However, the content of the coalition’s activities has not been revealed.

Under the proposal, each participating country in the coalition would escort their own commercial vessels through the strait.

If Japan were to join, it could base its participation on “security actions on the sea” under the Self-Defense Forces Law. Under this stipulation, Maritime SDF ships can engage in police-like activities.

Under a separate law, the SDF has been escorting ships in waters off Somalia since 2009. However, the law stipulates that the activities must be taken against pirates.

Therefore, it would be difficult to expand activities under the law to allow the SDF to take action as a member of the military coalition proposed by Dunford.

The national security legislation enacted in 2015 defines measures Japan can take to deal with situations that can seriously influence the nation’s peace and security.

One of those measures is rear-echelon support for U.S. forces.

However, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who is involved in defense-related issues said, “It is difficult to recognize the current situation (around the Strait of Hormuz) as one with such a serious influence.”

(This article was written by Ryuichi Yamashita and Ayako Oikawa.)