Japan’s unprecedented move to fight Somali pirates

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Japan has ordered its navy to prepare for a mission to guard against pirates off the coast of Somalia and plans to draw up legislation in the next two months to clear the way for its warships legally to combat modern-day buccaneers.

By Mure Dickie in Tokyo

Tokyo’s belated decision to join the more than a dozen nations that have already deployed naval vessels to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean highlights the sensitivity surrounding the use of military forces by a nation that has been officially pacifist since its defeat in the second world war.

The decision follows months of debate. Many politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic party have long sought to allow a wider role for the military – officially known as its self-defence forces since the postwar constitution renounces the maintenance of an army, air force or navy – as part of a drive to make the nation a “normal country”.

However, Tokyo has struggled to navigate the legal waters surrounding despatch of maritime self-defence force (MSDF) vessels, even though a mission against the marauders who have attacked scores of vessels off Somalia over the past year is relatively uncontroversial.

The government has concluded that under current legislation, MSDF warships can only act in the defence of Japanese vessels or those carrying Japanese nationals or cargo. Officials say that navies are legally free to take on high seas pirates at any time, but the MSDF does not have the status of a navy and any action must have a separate legal basis.

Despite such problems, Yasukazu Hamada, defence minister, on Wednesday ordered the MSDF to begin preparations for a mission to the waters near Somalia, saying the threat posed by pirates there required “urgent action”.

Taro Aso, the prime minister, would also prepare legislation for the Diet by March that would allow the MSDF to protect the ships of other nations from pirate attacks, a spokesman for Mr Aso said on Wednesday.

It is unclear how quickly any new law might be passed by the Diet. The parliament’s less powerful upper house is dominated by the opposition Democratic party, which has delayed a number of government bills in recent months.

Chinese factor

Tokyo had accelerated efforts to establish a legal basis for the mission after China last month sent three naval vessels to waters off Somalia last month, the first such mission by the People’s Liberation Army navy.

Beijing’s relatively prompt action has accentuated fears among Tokyo officials and policymakers that Japan risks being eclipsed by China’s growing international influence.

Both the number of vessels being held by pirates off Somalia and the number of attacks have been dropping, according to the International Maritime Bureau, which monitors piracy.

Michael Howlett, the organisation’s assistant director, said seven vessels had been released in the past month and there were currently nine vessels and 166 crew being held.

Additional reporting by Robert Wright in London and Barney Jopson in Nairobi

Financial Times

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