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International relations

Japan weighs US effort to guard ships in Middle Eastern waters

Questions remain about whether escorting falls within legal constraints on use of force

A U.S. sailor mans a patrol boat at a port in Bahrain. Tensions have mounted in waters around the Persian Gulf, a vital shipping route for Japanese oil.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan is considering participation in a U.S.-led naval coalition to escort commercial vessels in waters off the Iranian coast, depending on whether the details of Washington's plan fit within Tokyo's legal frameworks on the use of force, Nikkei has learned.

"Japan and the U.S. are in close communication" about the matter, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami told reporters Wednesday, though he declined to provide details about the possibility of Japan's involvement.

Washington envisions stationing command ships in the area, with each coalition member patrolling around these vessels and escorting commercial ships flying that country's flag.

While Japan's constitution bars the country from "the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes," the government has reinterpreted this in 2015 to allow a limited form of "collective self-defense," or aiding an ally under attack. Tokyo will examine whether the escort proposal fits under this policy or other legal carve-outs, as well as consider alternatives to dispatching the Self-Defense Forces.

The country relies on the Middle East for nearly 90% of its oil, according to government trade data. The Japanese Shipowners' Association says that tankers account for about 500 of the roughly 1,700 vessels operated by member companies that pass through the Strait of Hormuz each year. But with tensions running high between Iran and the U.S., Tehran has threatened to close this vital sea lane.

While shippers can sail through dangerous waters at full speed or post more guards as a precaution, the private sector can do only so much on its own.

"Ensuring safe passage through the Strait of Hormuz is vitally important to Japan's energy security," Nogami said Wednesday.

U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hammered out details of the proposed coalition on Tuesday in discussions with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

"I think probably over the next couple weeks we'll identify which nations have the political will to support that initiative," Dunford told reporters.

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