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
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
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
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 email@example.com.
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