Photo/IllutrationA P-3C patrol aircraft carrying Maritime Self-Defense Force members takes off from Naha Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture on Jan. 11 for an eventual mission in the Middle East. (Jun Kaneko)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe departed Jan. 11 on a five-day trip to three nations in the Middle East to explain his decision to dispatch a Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer and patrol aircraft to waters in the region.

The same day, two MSDF P-3C aircraft took off from Naha Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture on a mission to gather intelligence to ensure the safety of Japanese ships navigating waters in the Middle East. The aircraft will initially land in Djibouti, where the SDF has set up a temporary base for an international anti-piracy operation in waters off Somalia. The P-3C aircraft will begin patrolling waters in the Middle East from Jan. 20.

The MSDF destroyer Takanami with a crew of about 200 will depart Japan on Feb. 2.

Prior to leaving from Tokyo's Haneda Airport, Abe told reporters, "By obtaining the understanding of the relevant nations, I hope to push for thorough preparations for the dispatch (of the SDF)."

Abe will visit Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman before returning to Japan on Jan. 15.

In a related development, Defense Minister Taro Kono attended a ceremony at the MSDF's Naha Air Base to see off about 60 members on the patrol aircraft.

The first contingent will remain in the Middle East for about three months before they are replaced by the next contingent.

The dispatch of the destroyer and patrol aircraft for the study and research mission was approved by the Cabinet on Dec. 27. The mission will continue until Dec. 26.

The destroyer and aircraft will cover the Gulf of Oman, the northern half of the Arabian Sea as well as the Gulf of Aden to the east of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.

The area of operations does not include the Strait of Hormuz or the Persian Gulf where a U.S.-led multilateral coalition is carrying out a mission to secure the safety of ships in the area.

While the Trump administration asked Japan to join Operation Sentinel, the Abe administration decided to dispatch the MSDF on a separate mission in large part because it did not want to damage friendly ties with Iran.

But the MSDF will share intelligence with the U.S.-led alliance.

About 100 protesters gathered in Naha on Jan. 10 to express their opposition to the departure of the MSDF aircraft at a time of rising tension in the Middle East.

Isao Zukeran, a member of the Okinawa prefectural assembly, spoke at the gathering and said, "Deploying the SDF at a time when there is no telling what might happen between the United States and Iran is the same as going to war along with the United States."

(This article was compiled from reports by Ryuichi Yamashita, Naoki Matsuyama and Shinichi Fujiwara.)