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     Nov 21, 2008
Tokyo itches to take on pirates
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - Shocked by a string of pirate attacks on Japanese-owned tankers off the coast of Somalia, normally pacifist Japan is considering a new bill for the deployment of its powerful navy to fend off marauders and protect vital trade routes off the coast of East Africa.

If Japan has thus far disappointed the international community by failing to implement effective anti-piracy measures to help safeguard the world economy - it may be more to do with legislative gridlock than any lack of political will. In fact, one prominent naval expert feels that Japan is in a unique position to play a leading role in resolving the escalating piracy crisis that is


slowly paralyzing Asia's sea lanes.

"This is a matter of criminal activities, requiring a policing role coupled with other forms of policy intervention, not a war matter, requiring a primarily military response," Professor Richard Tanter, senior research associate at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability and co-author of About face: Japan's remilitarization, told Asia Times Online. "Japan has the chance to gain kudos by going beyond a 'send in the gunboats' response, building on its long tradition in foreign policy of comprehensive security ... rather than a purely militarized response."

The Japanese Foreign Ministry opened a new unit on maritime security just last month, a move Tanter described as "not just a bureaucratic move, I think it means that they see this issue as something on which they can take a diplomatic lead".

As Somalia's pirate problem gets steadily worse, many nations, such as the United States the European Union, have dispatched naval vessels to crack down. Now, the Japanese government is weighing the option of dispatching its Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyers and P3C patrol aircraft to the waters off Somalia to protect commercial vessels. Still, piracy is hardly a new concern for most politicians in Tokyo.

"Piracy has been a big concern for the Japanese shipping industry and the Japanese government for more than 10 years - since the first spikes of activity in the eastern Indian Ocean, Straits of Malacca and related areas," said Tanter. "The government is understandably alarmed at the seizure of the [Japanese chemical tanker] Chemstar Venus, and then subsequent seizure of a bigger Saudi tanker. Certainly, the disruption of sea lanes in such a key area is a serious concern for Japan, as it is for all other countries reliant on energy flows by sea from the region - including China, for example, as well as Korea."

The Japanese government may submit a special bill - allowing the MSDF to escort oil tankers and commercial ships of all nationalities to prevent hijackings - to the Diet (parliament) early next year, the Nikkei newspaper reported on Wednesday. The Japanese navy, or MSDF, is largely viewed by military experts as the second-strongest destroyer navy in the world, surpassed only by the US.

Under the bill, activities would be limited to protecting the sealanes near Somalia, and the use of force in response to pirate attacks would need to be authorized, the newspaper reported. Japan's navy would not be permitted to arrest suspects for prosecution in Japan, and would have to rely on support from other countries, according to Nikkei.

"However the phrase 'protection of sea lanes' in maritime strategy debates in Japan involves much more than piracy for ransom in quite a small area - for example, the East Africa-Gulf of Aden region. It's been used to propose far-reaching submarine and even aircraft carrier acquisition and deployment," said Tanter. "In reality, it is simply not possible for any one country, not even the US, to protect all of the sealanes' actively at one time. The 'protection of the sealanes' phrase, in such strategic debates, tends to be synonymous with arguments for naval expansion as such."

Even with recent events adding momentum to the bill, Japan's current political situation won't allow the Diet to pass the special bill enabling the operation any time soon. The current opposition camp is forcibly against the measure and has been enraged by Prime Minister Taro Aso's evasive tactic of delaying a snap election.

The prospects of passing the bill are growing less likely in the current extraordinary Diet session. The same is true for another proposed bill to extend the MSDF's refueling mission in the Indian Ocean for anti-terrorism operations in and around Afghanistan beyond a January 15 deadline.

Some experts, such as the Nautilus Institute's Tanter, feel the two bills are linked. "The proposal for an MSDF mission has been around for a while, and I say has at least some element of trying to relegitimize the longstanding Indian Ocean deployment," Tanter said.

The Aso administration is also facing difficulties in submitting an economic stimulus package, including a 2 trillion yen (US$21 billion) cash benefit program for households amid the global financial crisis. It takes time for deliberations on fiscal 2009 taxation reform and a compilation of the national budget for the next fiscal year starting April. With the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) taking a tougher stance against the Aso administration, many proposed bills are dead in the water.

"The current political climate can accomplish nothing," Chuichi Date, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party Upper House member, who currently serves as the party's deputy secretary general, told Asia Times Online. "It's better for Japan to dispatch Maritime Self-Defense Force ships out there. By establishing a special law, we need to authorize them to use weapons to protect themselves. Japan should make an international contribution on this matter."

Date predicted that Aso may dissolve the Lower House immediately after the opening of the ordinary Diet session early next year. This would further delay the dispatch of Japan's navy to Somalia.

"For more than a half year, we have requested the Japanese government send MSDF ships in the waters off Somalia as quickly as possible," Takashi Ishikawa, a spokesman at the Japanese Shipowners' Association, told Asia Times Online. "There should be no time to make a law or revise a law. Somali pirates could place the world economy in a very serious situation."

Japanese shipping firms currently operate about 2,000 vessels annually near Somalia in the Indian Ocean, and many of those vessels are actually foreign ships working for Japanese companies, Ishikawa said.

In fact, Japan has been trying to take the initiative in combating piracy off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden. Japan was one of the co-sponsors, along with the US and the United Kingdom among others, to jointly submit United Nations resolutions authorizing the use of force against Somali pirates. A cross-party group of young lawmakers met on Thursday to co-sponsor a special bill to protect commercial vessels from pirates.

"Basically, the MSDF dispatch is a good thing for Japan because such anti-pirates activities are already backed by United Nations resolutions," said Akihiro Tanaka, a professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo. "This is Japan's international contribution, which also leads to the protection of Japanese nationals there as a result."

Tanaka said Japan's post-war pacifist constitution, which strictly curtails its military activities overseas, may not be an insurmountable obstacle to sending the MSDF to Somalia because the pirates are not a nation-state with the right of belligerence against Japan.

The UN resolutions authorizing the use of force against Somali pirates may ultimately boost opposition support for a naval dispatch, as the DPJ has said Japan's overseas military dispatches should take place under the auspices of the UN, Tanaka said.

"Unfortunately there is the disturbing thought that the Japanese government is interested in linking this to the Indian Ocean deployment, with the possibility that this is a long-planned strategic expansion that has been looking for an excuse," said Tanter. "Japan is in a position to act diplomatically and economically to get the international community to work constructively at remedying the genuinely complex set of military, political, economic and shipping industry factors that has led to this eruption, and it's in Japan's interests to do so.

"That won't work, and unless it is completely decoupled from the involvement in the Afghanistan-Pakistan war through the Indian Ocean deployment, it runs the risk of dragging Japan into much murkier waters."

Kosuke Takahashi is a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at letters@kosuke.net.

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