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)

Japan’s plan to deploy the Self-Defense Forces to areas near the Strait of Hormuz, if implemented, could gum up diplomatic efforts to ease tensions between the United States and Iran.

We cannot support the envisioned SDF mission in the region that is at the heart of the acrimonious confrontation between Washington and Tehran at the moment.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is considering dispatching SDF troops to the volatile region to protect tankers and other vessels on its own instead of joining the international “coalition” to safeguard ships being pushed by U.S. President Donald Trump.

It is obviously an idea the Abe administration has hammered out in desperate efforts to avoid upsetting the Trump administration without damaging Japan’s traditionally good relationship with Iran.

The plan on the table would exclude the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf from the areas where the SDF would operate in a clear sign that Tokyo wants to avoid straining its ties with Tehran.

Abe has been making diplomatic efforts to mediate between the United States and Iran. He visited Iran in June and held talks with the leaders of both countries during his visit to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly meeting.

In its editorials, The Asahi Shimbun has expressed its support for his mediation diplomacy.

Japan is wading into dangerous waters by taking a premature step toward involvement in a military response to the situation before doing all it can to help the two countries find a way to settle the incendiary situation peacefully.

While saying Japan will not join the U.S.-led coalition, the Abe administration has pledged “close cooperation” with the United States in the region. It is unclear how Iran will view Japan’s action.

There is no ruling out the possibility that accidental clashes might occur in the region fraught with risks.

There are also questions about the necessity of making the move as well as about legal grounds for such an SDF deployment.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has admitted there is no immediate need for SDF operations to safeguard ships, saying in a news conference, “the situation (in the region) does not require us to immediately provide protection for ships related to our nation.”

The rationale for the proposed SDF deployment given by the government is the importance of enhancing Tokyo’s intelligence-gathering capabilities.

The government claims the SDF operations it is mulling will be based on Article 4 of the law for establishing the Defense Ministry, which lists the administrative tasks that fall within the jurisdiction of the ministry.

Article 4 of the law deals with tasks related to “research and study.”

It is, however, doubtful whether this provision really provides legitimate grounds for implementing the plan to send SDF troops to the Middle East, which is far from Japan and is currently thick with tension.

The government’s argument is based on a grossly stretched interpretation of the provision.

Overseas dispatch of the SDF based on this provision does not require approval by the Diet. It was also invoked to allow Maritime Self-Defense Force escort ships to protect U.S. aircraft carriers in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks against the United States.

It was again used as legal grounds for dispatching an MSDF escort ship to the Indian Ocean prior to operations to support the U.S.-led war against terrorism based on the special anti-terrorism law enacted in 2001.

The provision has effectively become a legal tool for the government to mobilize the SDF for overseas operations without obtaining Diet endorsement.

Even if the new mission in the Middle East is aimed at gathering intelligence and does not include safeguarding ships related to Japan, it is possible that the necessity might arise to force the defense minister to order an MSDF vessel to engage in “kaijo keibi kodo” (maritime patrol operation) based on the SDF law to protect other ships.

It will be difficult to call the SDF deployed to the region back home when an armed conflict breaks out.

The tense and dangerous situation was created, in the first place, by the Trump administration’s move last year to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the multilateral agreement to impose limits on Iran’s nuclear program.

For the current crisis to be defused, it is vital for Washington to change its attitude toward the issue.

What Japan should do now is not dispatch the SDF to the region. Instead, Tokyo should stick to its role as a potential mediator and make tenacious efforts to persuade the Trump administration to return to the nuclear deal while urging Iran to restrain itself from taking any reckless or provocative action.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 20