Photo/IllutrationDefense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, right, meets with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in Tokyo on Aug. 7. (The Asahi Shimbun)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Japan faces a tough balancing act in coming up with measures to protect ships carrying petroleum in the Middle East.

The United States has been pushing a multinational effort called Operation Sentinel to protect ships in and around the Persian Gulf.

Given that the United States is Japan's primary ally, officials do not want to disappoint Washington. But they also do not want to antagonize Iran, especially as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pitched acting as an intermediary between the two nations.

According to sources, one option would involve moving a Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel and aircraft now patrolling the waters that include the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia closer to the Gulf of Oman, which would be outside of the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf.

The MSDF ship and patrol aircraft have been deployed to the Gulf of Aden since 2009 to deal with pirates in the waters off Somalia.

The area covering the Gulf of Oman was included in a statement released by the U.S. Central Command in July regarding Operation Sentinel that named the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Oman as waters in which the multinational alliance would provide greater security for ships.

U.S. President Donald Trump has long complained that America's allies were not doing their part in contributing to the security of ships sailing through the Strait of Hormuz.

Visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper also asked Japan to join the multinational alliance in talks with Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya on Aug. 7.

Given that background, a high-ranking administration official said, "It would not do for Japan to do nothing."

Abe himself touched upon the various considerations before deciding on what cooperative measures Japan could take.

In an Aug. 6 news conference, he said maintaining the security of ships registered in Japan navigating through the Strait of Hormuz was of vital importance. In the same breath, he mentioned the importance of cooperating with the United States while also maintaining Japan's friendly ties with Iran.

Japan imports close to 90 percent of its petroleum from the Middle East so ensuring shipping lanes are secure is vital.

Defense Ministry officials have been considering what options were available to the MSDF in the Persian Gulf region. One consensus reached was that the southern part of the Persian Gulf as well as the Strait of Hormuz carried greater risks because they overlap the territorial waters of both Iran and Oman. Choosing the Gulf of Oman as the base of operations for the MSDF would not be as provocative a measure in connection with Iran.

One detail that still has to be worked out is whether the MSDF ship and patrol aircraft can be moved to the Gulf of Oman as a continuation of anti-piracy measures or as a new maritime patrol operation defined in the SDF Law. In either case, the MSDF would not come under the direct command of the U.S. military.

Moreover, the change in both cases could be made through a revised Abe Cabinet decision or approval from Abe to conduct maritime patrol to protect Japanese ships.

In either case, Japan would not likely be one of the first nations to take part in Operation Sentinel. So far, only Britain has indicated its intention to participate in the operation. That means that the U.S. military itself has not yet determined what specific measures will be taken.

A final decision on what form of cooperation Japan provides will likely be made after reviewing the specific plan presented by the United States as well as taking into account what other nations decide.

With such factors to be considered, the earliest the MSDF would join the operation is likely to be this autumn.