, TOKYO, Apr 23 – Japan’s lower house passed an anti-piracy bill Thursday that will allow the country’s two destroyers off Somalia wider scope to use force and protect foreign-flagged ships.
Japan last month joined the United States, China and other countries in the maritime operation against pirates who have attacked ships in the Gulf of Aden, a key maritime route leading to the Suez Canal.
Because of limits on Japan’s military imposed under the post-World War II pacifist constitution, the destroyers so far have no mandate to use force except in self-defence and to protect Japanese interests.
The new government-sponsored bill will widen their rules of engagement and allow them to fire at the hulls of pirate vessels – but not at the pirates themselves – after repeated warnings and as a last resort.
If enacted, the new bill will also allow the Maritime Self-Defence Force to protect any commercial ships, not just those under a Japanese flag or carrying Japanese nationals or cargo.
The opposition-controlled upper house may reject the bill after lawmakers voiced concern about expanding Japan’s military reach – but the lower house can then override the veto and turn the bill into law.
Conservative Prime Minister Taro Aso, who faces an election this year, has strongly promoted the bill.
"Public safety and maintaining security and order are very important for Japan," he told a parliamentary committee. "The world expects Japan to make a further contribution and we have a duty to respond."
He added: "Japan is an island nation surrounded by sea, a resource-poor trading nation which relies on imports of resources from abroad. Consequently, security of marine transport is one of our high priorities."
Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada earlier said the destroyers had on three occasions helped foreign ships by scaring off suspicious vessels with the use of loudspeakers and by deploying their helicopters.
Hamada told lawmakers: "I beg you to pass the bill as soon as possible, because I think allowing the navy to also protect foreign vessels is desirable for continuing our mission in an appropriate manner."