, TOKYO, Jun 19 – Japan’s parliament passed an anti-piracy law Friday that will allow the officially pacifist nation’s military wider scope to use force and to protect foreign-flagged ships off Somalia.
Japan in March joined the United States, China and more than 20 other countries in the maritime operation against pirates who have attacked ships in the Gulf of Aden, a key route leading to the Suez Canal.
Resource-poor Japan draws much of its energy needs from the Middle East and is anxious to protect its oil supplies and its Europe-bound container ships from armed rebels who have hijacked more than 40 ships this year.
Because of limits on the military imposed by Tokyo’s post-World War II pacifist constitution, Japan’s two destroyers there so far have no mandate to use force except to protect Japanese interests or when acting in self-defence.
The new law allows Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force to protect any commercial ships threatened by pirates, not just those sailing under the Japanese flag or carrying Japanese nationals or cargo.
It also widens the navy’s rules of engagement and allows it to fire at pirate vessels that approach other ships, as a last resort.
With the law, "Japan can take action more effectively against piracy, in cooperation with other countries," Prime Minister Taro Aso said in a statement.
"Piracy is a threat not only to Japan but to the international community and a challenge Japan should proactively deal with," said the conservative premier who has argued Japan should play a greater role in international security.
Aso, who faces an election this year, has said security of maritime transport is vitally important for Japan.
Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada "issued an order to prepare for an immediate and appropriate implementation" of the navy’s expanded mission after the law takes effect in late July, the defence ministry said.
The lower house first passed the bill in April, but the opposition-controlled upper house early on Friday rejected it after lawmakers there voiced concern about expanding Japan’s military reach.
However, just hours later, the lower house overruled the veto, voting the bill into law with a more than two-thirds majority.
The opposition, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, had called for a revision to the bill to strengthen the role of the coast guard instead of the military in anti-piracy activities in waters far from Japan.
It had also demanded a provision that would require parliamentary approval before the military is dispatched on any anti-piracy mission to ensure strong civilian oversight — an idea rejected by the ruling bloc.
In addition to two destroyers, with a total 400 crew, Japan last month also dispatched two maritime surveillance aircraft and scores of military personnel to the region to beef up its anti-piracy mission.
The military mission is unprecedented for Japan, raising the likelihood its armed forces could face combat abroad for the first time since World War II.
Modern Japan’s major overseas missions so far — including in Iraq and as UN peacekeepers — have focused on logistical and support operations such as refuelling and reconstruction and troops have yet to fire a shot in anger.