A Japanese destroyer is en route to the Gulf of Oman amid simmering Middle East tension to guard sea lanes supplying nearly all the oil powering the world’s third-biggest economy.
“Thousands of Japanese ships ply those waters every year including vessels carrying nine tenths of our oil. It is Japan’s lifeline,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the crew at Yokosuka naval base near Tokyo, before they cast off in a ceremony attended by 500 family members and representatives from the United States, European nations and Middle East.
Abe’s government is prepared to authorise force to protect ships in danger, a controversial decision because Japan’s war renouncing constitution forbids the use of military force in international disputes.
The Takanami, which will be joined by two maritime patrol aircraft, will not join a naval force led by Japan’s US ally or other naval coalitions in the region.
Tokyo chose to operate independently as it navigates disputes in the volatile region. Japan maintains cordial relations with Iran and other countries there and Abe travelled to the region in January to brief Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman on the mission after speaking with Iranian leaders.
Tension in the Middle East heightened as friction between Iran and the US escalated following President Donald Trump’s decision to remove the US from a 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran and re-impose sanctions.
The US blame Iran for attacks on international merchant vessels, including a Japanese-owned tanker, the Kokuka Courageous. Tehran denies the accusation.
In addition to the Gulf of Oman, the Takanami, with 200 sailors and two helicopters, will patrol the northern Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The ship will not enter the Strait of Hormuz, a strategically important choke point between Iran and the Arabian peninsula.
The Japanese destroyer will share water with a growing number of warships from the US, France and Britain.
“Japanese merchant ships were attacked in June and other nations increased patrols so Japan is acting to gather intelligence there,” mission commander, Captain Yosuke Inaba told reporters before departure.