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Japan cautious over U.S. mission in Hormuz

The Yomiuri Shimbun

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, right, walks with Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, left, in front of an honor guard at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo on Wednesday.

By Kojiro Tanikawa and Michitaka Kaiya / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersAt Wednesday’s Japan-U.S. defense ministerial meeting, the United States asked Japan to cooperate in a U.S.-led maritime security initiative aimed at ensuring safety in waterways including the Strait of Hormuz. While the United States wants to recruit as many participants as possible, the Japanese government, which maintains friendly relations with Iran, will carefully consider how to deal with the situation.

Comprehensive judgment

At the meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper asked for Japan’s cooperation over safety of navigation, and Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya avoided giving a clear-cut answer, saying only: “The Middle East is an extremely important region for our country’s energy security. We will make a decision in a comprehensive manner within the government as a whole.”

However, in addition to giving consideration to the Japan-U.S. alliance, the government is considering dispatching Self-Defense Forces personnel to the scene based on the notion that “Japan shouldn’t just sit there doing nothing given the fact that more than 80 percent of its crude oil imports pass through the Strait of Hormuz,” as a senior Japanese government official was quoted as saying.

But an idea has emerged within the government to dispatch the SDF independently from the U.S.-led plan. If Japan decided to participate in the U.S. initiative, Iran would deem that Japan had gone over to the enemy, and the Japan-Iran relationship may deteriorate.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Iran in June and met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The basic stance of the Japanese government is to “continue diplomatic efforts to ease tensions,” according to a senior foreign ministry official.

U.S. getting soft?

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has recently avoided using the term “coalition,” which could evoke an image of encircling Iran and aggressive military operations. Instead, it is now using the more moderate term “maritime security initiative,” aiming to encourage as many countries as possible to participate in its plan, given that it is having a hard time winning the participation of relevant countries.

The U.S. government is believed to have lowered the hurdles for the nations concerned to contribute to the plan. According to a senior Japanese government official, the United States showed consideration for Japan’s position during bilateral talks by saying, “We understand that there are constitutional restrictions on the dispatch of the SDF.”

Iwaya told reporters after meeting with Esper that the United States “understood our policy.”

A senior foreign ministry official said, “We don’t feel any pressure to participate in the initiative no matter what.”

Last-minute negotiation

With an Abe-Trump meeting likely to be held on the sidelines of a summit meeting of the Group of Seven industrial powers in France on Aug. 24-26, the Japanese government plans to speed up discussions on how to get involved in the U.S. initiative, sources said.

Abe is considering holding further talks with Rouhani in time for the U.N. General Assembly meeting being held in New York in late September. If Japan makes clear its stance on the U.S. initiative — including the idea of an SDF dispatch — before other countries do so, it could affect coordination for a summit meeting with Iran. The Japanese government is likely waiting to take action until the last minute.Speech

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