TOKYO Mar 13 – Japan on Friday ordered two warships to join an anti-piracy mission off Somalia, one of the most active deployments yet for a military restrained by the country’s post-war pacifist constitution.,
US, European and Chinese naval vessels are already deployed in the Gulf of Aden to fend off pirates behind more than 100 attacks on ships last year.
The two Japanese destroyers with 400 crew were to set sail on Saturday for the Gulf to protect cargo ships in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes near the Suez canal that links Europe with Asia, the defence ministry said.
"Piracy off Somalia is a threat to Japan and the international community," Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada said.
"It is an important duty for the Self-Defence Forces to protect Japanese lives and assets."
The maritime mission has divided public opinion in Japan, which under the post-World War II constitution permits its soldiers in international disputes to use force only for self-defence and to protect Japanese nationals.
The government planned to submit a bill later Friday that would widen the scope of force that its military personnel can use against pirates and allow them to protect foreign vessels and nationals as well as Japanese.
The two destroyers – the 4,650-ton Sazanami and 4,550-ton Samidare – will each carry two patrol helicopters and two speedboats, to be used by members of the navy’s commando-style Special Boarding Unit.
The ships are expected to arrive in waters near the Suez canal in around three weeks. The period of deployment has not been fixed, Hamada said, but he told reporters that "six months could be an idea."
Japan’s major overseas missions in the past – including in Iraq, near Afghanistan, and as UN peacekeepers – have so far been largely for logistical and rear-area support, such as refuelling, transport and reconstruction.
Critics argue this mission could set a new precedent for Japanese military missions overseas and could see the country’s servicemen use lethal force for the first time since WWII.
However, recent newspaper polls have shown growing public support for the anti-piracy mission, with a survey this week by the top-selling Yomiuri Shimbun showing 61 percent of respondents in favour and 27 percent against.
Under the current rules of engagement, the two Maritime Self-Defence Force ships, carrying a combined total of about 400 sailors and coast guard officers, would protect only Japanese ships, nationals and cargo.
Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party has proposed legislation to allow Japanese troops to fire on the hulls of approaching pirate boats that refuse repeated orders to stop.
It would also allow them to protect non-Japanese ships and citizens.
A cabinet meeting Friday approved the bill, Hamada said, and it was due to be submitted to parliament in the evening, a parliament official said.
"I hope the legislation will be approved as soon as possible," Hamada said, to allow Japan to "assume our responsibility in the international community."
Around 2,000 Japanese ships sail through Somali waters to pass through the Suez canal every year and the nation’s shipping industry has voiced alarm over the cost should they have to opt for a safer but longer route.
The spate of pirate attacks have led some shipping companies to avoid the Suez canal and sail around Africa at greater cost.