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Japan’s Response to Sea Piracy

Pranamita Baruah is Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • March 30, 2009

    In its efforts to check the piracy menace, Japan deployed two Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) destroyers - Sazanami and Samidare - on March 14, 2009 in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, on a four-month long anti-piracy mission. Japanese law mandates that that the destroyers can only escort Japanese merchant ships through this piracy-prone area without the authority to use weapons. 2,595 Japan-linked commercial ships have already registered their requests to be escorted.

    Article 82 of the SDF law allows the SDF to take necessary action at sea to protect Japanese lives and property in situations that exceed the capacity of the Japan Coast Guard (JCG). Under this ‘maritime police action,’ however, the SDF is authorized to use weapons only in legitimate self-defence or to counter imminent dangers. Japan’s attempt to legalize MSDF deployment outside Japan’s sea border has created domestic controversy.

    The growing incidence of sea piracy is a matter of concern for Japan as Japanese trade must pass through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Japan is alert to this reality and has taken various initiatives in cooperation with regional powers to address the issue of piracy. The JCG has conducted joint training exercises with six Southeast Asian states. Japan’s aid programmes also offer training and equip forces in all of the coastal states. Since the mid-1990s, Japan has become increasingly concerned about piracy as a direct threat to its comprehensive security. The importance of maritime security as an integral part of Japanese foreign policy can be determined from the fact that Japan imports around 99 per cent of its petroleum and 70 per cent of its food by sea. Similarly, almost 99 per cent of the total goods exported by Japan to Europe, Australia, Middle East and Africa is carried by sea. At present, among all the sea lanes vital for Japanese trade, it is the sea lanes of Southeast Asia (through which Japan imports most of its strategic items, such as, petroleum, coal, uranium, grain, and iron ore) – the second most piracy prone area – that play a significant role in Japan’s maritime security policy. Despite Japan’s growing emphasis on maritime security around Southeast Asian sea-lanes, for long, it abstained from securitizing the maritime piracy threat.

    A number of high profile cases, such as the hijacking of ships belonging to Japan – Alondra Rainbow (1999), Tenyu (1998), Global Mars (2000) and Arbey Jaya (2001) – particularly sensitized the Japanese public and policymakers to the growing threat of piracy. Soon, issues like the idea of a UN Coast Guard, the involvement of Japanese SDF in multilateral enforcement operations, etc., started to be discussed and debated within Japan. Former Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo announced the first major anti-piracy cooperation proposal. The JCG, the MSDF, along with political groupings favouring ‘normalization’ of Japan and expansion of Japan’s international security role, also triggered Japanese involvement in countering Southeast Asian piracy. As part of such efforts, the initiative popularly known as the Ocean Peace Keeping (OPK) soon came into existence. The concept of OPK argues that the safeguarding of oceans against piracy and other non-traditional threats should not be prevented by sovereignty barriers. Instead, states should take the initiative to create a standing body of combined forces to provide comprehensive maritime security both in national and international waters. Although the concept seemed to be quite ‘ideal’ to protect sea-lanes, the OPK was rejected by both the Japanese government as well as the international community since it would be contrary to international law and would mean an unconstitutional use of the Japanese SDF.

    Despite the failure of the OPK initiative, Japan took up the piracy issue and called for extraordinary measures to counter this threat at the November 1999 ASEAN+3 Summit at Manila. There, Japan announced its desire to confer on the JCG vessels the responsibility for conducting joint patrols with Southeast Asian states. In 2000, Tokyo hosted two international anti-piracy conferences. In his address at one of the conferences, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori expressed his support for Obuchi’s programme. The issue of joint patrol was mooted. In the same year, Japan reached bilateral arrangements with the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Under those arrangements, the JCG conducted anti-piracy training with India and Malaysia in November 2000; with the Philippines, India, and Thailand in 2001; with Brunei, Indonesia, and India in 2002; with the Philippines and Singapore in 2003; with Thailand in 2004. Today, JCG vessels and aircraft regularly visit Southeast Asia for exercises with their regional counterparts and for joint anti-piracy patrols. During the premiership of Junichiro Koizumi too, the necessity of resolving the piracy threat around the Southeast Asian region was emphasized. His proposal led to negotiations for a ‘Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia’ (ReCAPP) among representatives of ASEAN states though there has not been much progress.

    More recently, piracy off Somalia has emerged as a great cause of concern not only to Japan but also to the international community. According to Foreign Ministry sources, the number of piracy incidents in this area has jumped from 44 in 2007 to 111 in 2008. As of March 5, 2009, there have been 25 attacks by pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Although no Japanese ship has been taken hostage by pirates yet, the latter have fired at three Japanese vessels in separate incidents. In April 2008, Takayama, a Japanese oil tanker was attacked by Somalian pirates of the coast of Yemen. The attackers reportedly left bullet holes in the ship’s hull. In another incident, in November, 2008, a chemical tanker owned by a Japanese company was attacked and crew members taken hostage for two months. Calling the Gulf of Aden as a pivotal area whose safety could “deeply affect the economy and the lives of Japanese citizens,” the Japan Ship Owners’ Association handed a report to Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada in December 2008 which suggested that escorting of ships by destroyers would ‘likely have an affect against pirates’.

    As mentioned, the JCG is the authorized force to provide protection against pirates for Japanese vessels in the territorial waters around Japan. It has the experience of escorting a plutonium nuclear-fuel carrying ship from Europe to Japan and sinking a suspicious North Korean boat in Japanese territorial waters. But it has certain limitations due to constitutional constraints. Acknowledging this fact, the Japanese government has opted for the MSDF to offer support in anti-piracy missions. Accordingly, under a cross-service arrangement, it was decided that JCG personnel with authority to make arrests will man MSDF ships during the anti-piracy mission. This step has been taken especially because the SDF is officially not authorized to make arrests. The arrested pirates, however, will be handed over to the countries concerned or prosecuted within Japan.

    The Japanese government’s decision to send MSDF has generated a mixed response within Japan. According to Satoshi Morimoto, security expert in Takushoku University’s Institute of World Studies, considering that the sea environment has become drastically unsafe in the past couple of years, it should not be hard for Aso to gain public support for a MSDF anti-piracy escort dispatch if the government states its case clearly as to why Japan had to take such a dramatic measure. However, Morimoto’s optimism does not seem to be shared by many within MSDF itself. They seem to be quite doubtful about the effectiveness of the MSDF in dealing with the growing piracy threat on the Somalia coast, particularly because of the constitutional constraints, limited expertise in the concerned area, limits on the MSDF’s use of weapons as well as the range of ships it can escort.

    As regards constitutional constraints, the Japanese government has finally decided to take some concrete measures in this regard. Just after the decision to dispatch MSDF to Somalia on an interim basis, the Cabinet has also sent a bill which will bring a durable solution to the constitutional constraints over MSDF functioning at sea. Interestingly, this new bill proposes to assign to the Japanese government the authority to send MSDF units on anti-piracy missions anywhere in the world without Diet approval. It also allows the MSDF to protect all ships, including those from foreign countries, anywhere in the world. The bill further proposes that the JCG and MSDF be tasked to tackle piracy, with the latter being called upon when the former fails to perform its task. However, instead of offering unrestricted authority to the JMSDF, the bill proposes to utilize it just as a deterrent. Also, while relaxing conditions surrounding the use of weapons against pirates, the new bill proposes to incorporate a provision that will allow MSDF personnel to use weapons in cases of self defence or during emergency. If implemented, all these provisions in the proposed bill will definitely bring about revolutionary changes both in Japan’s internal as well as external policies.