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International relations

Japan eyes intel mission near Persian Gulf in early 2020

SDF information gathering would run alongside US-led operation in shipping lane

Japan plans to gather intelligence around the Persian Gulf using a P-3C patrol craft.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan looks to dispatch the Self-Defense Forces on an intelligence gathering mission around the Persian Gulf early next year to help secure a key shipping route.

The government is working to secure approval for the mission from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet this month. This deployment of SDF personnel would involve sharing intelligence with Operation Sentinel, the U.S.-led naval coalition tasked with securing the Strait of Hormuz following attacks on oil tankers that Washington blames on Iran. Operation Sentinel is set to be fully underway in January.

The SDF's intelligence gathering would target international waters near Yemen and Oman. The activity is expected to take place mainly in the Gulf of Oman, the northern Arabian Sea and the eastern half of the Bab el-Mandeb strait off the southwestern coast of Yemen. The Strait of Hormuz, a channel adjacent to Iran, links the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

SDF personnel will be restricted to survey and research, which will not involve the use of arms. If a Japanese vessel is attacked, then the personnel will be authorized to adopt armed marine patrol operations.

The leading proposal calls for dispatching a Japanese vessel to the region and redirecting one of two P-3C patrol planes from anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.

Though Japan would share intelligence with Operation Sentinel, SDF personnel would not participate directly with the U.S.-led mission, as Tokyo looks to maintain friendly ties with Iran.

In mid-October, Abe ordered Japan's National Security Council to examine sending SDF personnel to the Middle East. A survey and research operation ordinarily can be authorized solely by the defense minister. But considering the sensitive nature of the mission, the government is heeding calls by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and junior coalition partner Komeito to fully vet the plan.

Some in the ruling ranks insist upon a clear timetable for when the mission will end. The government is considering a plan in which the duration is defined, with the option of renewals as needed.

The U.S. announced Operation Sentinel this summer following the attacks on merchant ships and opened a command center in Bahrain last month. The coalition contains seven nations including Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Great Britain and Albania. France and India also will conduct independent naval operations.

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