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JAPAN: Abe strives for balance as Middle East tensions mount

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On 27 December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet approved a decision to send a Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) destroyer and patrol planes to patrol along the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula, from the Bab-el-Mandeb strait at the mouth of the Red Sea in the west to the Gulf of Oman in the east. The planes would commence operations in January, while the MSDF destroyer would be dispatched in early February.

However, as Japan as returned to work after the New Year’s holiday, Abe has had to grapple with the implications of tensions between the US and Iran in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on 3 January. Although opposition parties have called upon the government to rescind its decision, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Wednesday, 8 January, that while the government is monitoring the situation, “there will be no change of policy at this time.”

The circumstances of the Abe government’s decision make it unlikely that it will change course. The Trump administration has pressured Japan, along with other allies, to support coalition operations to bolster maritime security in and around the Strait of Hormuz, forcing the Abe government to offer assistance in some form. Washington appears to be satisfied even though, as expectedJapan’s deployment will be an independent operation – separate from the US-led “coalition of the willing.” The MSDF detachment will also act under extremely limited rules of engagement. While the mission was ostensibly triggered by threats to Japanese shipping, the detachment will not be formally engaged in escort activities. Instead, the deployment will be according to the “research and study” clause of the Defense Ministry Act, which prohibits the use of weapons for all but the most basic acts of self-defense. Having satisfied US demands, it would take a significant increase in hostilities – to the point that the safety of the MSDF detachment itself was threatened – for the Abe administration to reverse course, not least because Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, during a visit to Japan last month, also indicated his understanding of Japan’s mission.

Nevertheless, the spike in tensions between the US and Iran will complicate Abe’s challenging effort to safeguard its alliance with the US while also preserving longstanding ties with Tehran. Abe has continued to voice his desire to be a “bridge builder” between the two adversaries, but if the regional security situation worsens it could forestall any attempt by Abe to facilitate dialogue. In more immediate terms, the uptick in violence has led Abe to scrap a trip to Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates that had been planned for 11-15 January. Despite Abe’s diplomatic ambitions, the most important task facing the prime minister may be economic. Japanese financial markets were roiled after the Soleimani killing, and the spike in oil prices – Japan imports 90% of its petroleum from the Middle East – could weigh on manufacturers as they continue to struggle with weak demand at home and abroad, while global uncertainty could lead the yen to strengthen, further constraining major exporters.

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JAPAN: Abe strives for balance as Middle East tensions mount

On 27 December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet approved a decision to send a Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) destroyer and patrol planes to patrol