TOKYO (AP) — Japan on Friday approved a contentious plan to send naval troops to the Middle East to ensure the safety of Japanese ships bringing oil to the energy-poor country that depends heavily on imports from the region.
The Cabinet’s decision reflects tensions that have escalated between Iran and the United States since President Donald Trump withdrew from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal.
“Taking into consideration the escalating tension in the Middle East, it is necessary to strengthen our information gathering effort,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.
Citing Japan’s heavy dependence on oil imports from the region, Suga said: “It is extremely important to secure the safe navigation of Japan-affiliated ships.”
Despite being a U.S. ally, Japan’s troop dispatch is not part of a U.S.-led coalition protecting Middle East waterways, but apparently an attempt to maintain neutrality in a show of consideration to Iran.
Under the plan, Japan will send about 260 Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel with a destroyer and a pair of P-3C reconnaissance aircraft, mainly for intelligence-gathering in the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Defense Minister Taro Kono issued an order for the troops to start preparing for the operation, which is planned for one year, beginning early next year.
Kono is to visit Djibouti on the eastern coast of Africa and Oman this weekend to discuss Japan’s mission. Japanese troops have been based in Djibouti as part of an international anti-piracy effort off the Somali coast, and a P-3C unit in that operation will be shifted to the new mission in January, he said.
Japan will stay away from the Strait of Hormuz, where the U.S.-led coalition is operating.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained the plan to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when he visited Tokyo last week.
Japan, which has friendly ties with both Iran and the United States, seeks to serve as a mediator between the two and play a greater role in restoring stability in the region, officials said.
The Middle East supplies more than 80% of Japan’s oil.
Sending warships to areas of military tension is a highly sensitive issue in Japan because its pacifist post-World War II constitution limits the use of force by the military strictly to self-defense. Abe, however, has gradually expanded Japan’s military role in recent years.
In June, a Japanese-operated tanker was attacked in the Gulf of Oman. Washington said Iran was responsible and urged Japan to join the U.S.-led military initiative.
Petroleum Association of Japan Chairman Takashi Tsukioka welcomed a troop dispatch in a statement: “The Middle East situation continues to be uncertain and we believe it will contribute to the safety of ship navigation in the Middle East.” But many Japanese citizens protested in the streets.