The centerpiece of Japan’s response to US calls for a Middle East security coalition — a single warship — is to set sail on a mission that highlights just how few US allies have signed up.
The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Takanami and two patrol airplanes are taking part in what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has said would be a year-long intelligence-gathering deployment to protect vital oil shipments from the region.
However, Japan has made sure that those assets would be operating independently from the US and staying away from potential flashpoints in the Persian Gulf.
US allies, such as Japan, are walking a fine line to show support for President Donald Trump, while minimizing the risk of getting drawn into a larger conflict with Iran.
Many disagreed with Trump’s decision to withdraw from a 2018 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to curb Tehran’s nuclear program and were alarmed over a flurry of violence last month that included the US’ targeted killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
While Australia and the UK have each committed ships and are part of the US-led International Maritime Security Construct, others, such as Japan, India and South Korea, have sent vessels to the region with orders to act independently.
France said it would deploy its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the Middle East from last month to April to support European countries.
“The international response has varied from lukewarm to hostile,” said Ashley Townshend, director of foreign policy and defense at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre.
“Most US allies and partners have sensibly sought to stay out of the Persian Gulf deployment, which is — or at least could have been — an entirely avoidable mission, had Trump not withdrawn from the JCPOA and eschewed a cool-headed path of diplomacy,” he said.
The US began recruiting backers for the security coalition last summer after a series of attacks on tankers near the gulf.
Trump singled out Japan, which receives almost 90 percent of its oil from the Middle East, among the countries that were providing “zero compensation” for US protection.
Abe has to balance Trump’s demands with the concerns of voters who believe overseas deployments violate the country’s commitment to pacifism enshrined in its post-World War II constitution.
With today’s mission, Abe appears to have done just enough to avoid upsetting any parties.
Similarly, South Korea has announced that it would temporarily expand anti-piracy patrols by its Cheonghae naval unit to include the Strait of Hormuz and transfer troops already nearby in the region to the gulf.
“By operating outside the US coalition, Japan and South Korea hope to minimize their military exposure, while also preserving diplomatic ties and economic relations with Iran — something Prime Minister Abe has so far dexterously achieved,” Townshend said.