A plan to dispatch Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) personnel to the Middle East has been passed by Cabinet decision. If Japan were to participate in a United States-led coalition to guard ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz, its friendly relationship with Iran would be no longer. Thus, Tokyo took the tack of a unilateral dispatch.
However, it was back in June that a tanker operated by a Japanese shipping company was attacked near the Strait of Hormuz. The situation has been calm ever since. Why dispatch the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) now? It's hard to shake the feeling that deployment of the MSDF wasn't so much deliberated as it was decided without any debate; it was merely a show of deference to the U.S.
What remains in question is the Japanese government's use of a provision about survey and research missions in the Act for Establishment of the Ministry of Defense as the basis for the deployment. The provision is usually the grounds for early warning and surveillance operations that the SDF conducts in the waters and airspace surrounding Japan.
If the MSDF is in the Middle East to gather information for the purpose of survey and research, it is easy to explain that there is no intent of applying military pressure on Iran. However, it is rather weak as legal grounds for a serious political decision to send troops abroad. It is far too imbalanced.
It was out of consideration for Iran that Tokyo set the operational range of MSDF destroyers in the region from the northern part of the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Oman, excluding the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. There is probably a secondary reason: to stay away from dangerous waters and assess the changing situation.
Still, it is a great big ocean out there. The Japanese government says that if a Japan-related ship were to be attacked, the MSDF would take maritime security action. But there is only so much a single destroyer can do. And even that destroyer is not due to arrive in the region until February 2020.
Even if Tokyo presents itself as being neutral, in effect, the MSDF's activities will primarily be those of a U.S. ally. Information that the MSDF gathers will be shared with the U.S. Navy, and it seems that in effect, the Japanese forces will collaborate with the U.S.-led coalition. P-3C patrol planes that have been posted in the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy operations will be given additional duties.
While the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may think it has kept its moves to the minimum necessary to keep a good relationship with the U.S., adversaries may see Japan as being "one with Washington," putting Japan at risk of becoming a central player in a conflict.
This is precisely why rigorous rule of law and civilian control are called for when deploying forces. The administration's attitude -- barely deliberating the issue in the Diet and simply passing the resolution in the Cabinet -- is problematic. We seek continued verification of this case in the Diet.
It was the U.S.'s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal that made safety in the Strait of Hormuz a problem to begin with. Peaceful diplomatic efforts should be continued to alleviate tensions in the area.