Japan approved a contentious plan to send its naval troops to the Middle East to ensure the safety of Japanese ships transporting oil to the energy-poor country that heavily depends on imports from the region, The Associated Press writes.
Tokyo’s decision reflects tensions that have escalated between Iran and the U.S. 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 added that “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, apparently an attempt to maintain neutrality in a show of consideration to Iran, AP adds.
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.
Japanese 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 currently 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. Japanese 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 U.S., also seeks to serve as a mediator between the two and play a greater role in restoring stability in the region, officials said.