Japanese Warship Steers Clear of Trump Risk in Mideast Mission

Jon Herskovitz

(Bloomberg) -- The centerpiece of Japan’s response to U.S. calls for a Middle East security coalition -- a single warship -- sets sail Sunday, on a mission that highlights just how few American allies have signed up.

The Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Takanami, as well as two patrol planes, are taking part in what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has said will be a yearlong intelligence-gathering deployment to protect vital oil shipments from the region. But Japan has made sure those assets will be operating independently from the U.S. and staying away from potential flashpoints in the Persian Gulf.

U.S. allies such as Japan are walking a fine line to show support for President Donald Trump while minimizing the risk of getting drawn into a larger conflict with Iran. Many disagreed with Trump’s decision to withdraw from a 2018 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to curb Tehran’s nuclear program and were alarmed over a flurry of violence last month that included the U.S.’s targeted killing of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

While Australia and the U.K. have each committed ships and are part of the U.S.-led International Maritime Security Construct, others such as Japan, India and South Korea have sent vessels to the region with orders to act independently. France said it would deploy its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the Middle East from January to April to support European countries.

“The international response has varied from lukewarm to hostile,” said Ashley Townshend, director of foreign policy and defense at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre. “Most U.S. allies and partners have sensibly sought to stay out of the Persian Gulf deployment, which is -- or at least could have been -- an entirely avoidable mission, had Trump not withdrawn from the JCPOA and eschewed a cool-headed path of diplomacy.”

‘Zero Compensation’

The U.S. began recruiting backers for the security coalition last summer after a series of attacks on tankers near the Persian Gulf, a strategic choke point that handles about one-third of the world’s seaborne crude oil. Trump singled out Japan, which gets almost 90% of its oil from the Middle East, among the countries that were providing “zero compensation” for U.S. protection.

Three regional rivals of Iran -- Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- as well as Albania, have also signed up for the International Maritime Security Construct. Australia dispatched its frigate HMAS Toowoomba, while the U.K. sent the HMS Montrose and HMS Defender -- a frigate and a destroyer –- to accompany British-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz.

The demand posed a particularly difficult problem for Japan and South Korea, which used to get significant shipments of oil from Iran before the U.S. imposed sanctions. Both also rely on a large U.S. troop presence for their security and are under pressure from Trump to pay more for those deployments.

Next year, Japan is set to renew a five-year deal with the U.S. that determines how much it contributes for local staff, utilities and training relocation. Tokyo is expected to pay 197 billion yen ($1.8 billion) this year, although the U.S. doesn’t publish the costs of maintaining the bases.

Japan’s Abe Resumes Constitution Quest to Burnish Legacy

Abe has to balance Trump’s demands with the concerns of voters who believe overseas deployments violate the country’s commitment to pacifism enshrined in its post-World War II constitution. With Sunday’s Takanami mission, Abe appears to have done just enough to avoid upsetting any parties.

Similarly, South Korea has announced that it would temporarily expand anti-piracy patrols by its Cheonghae naval unit to include the Strait of Hormuz and transfer troops already nearby in the region to the Persian Gulf.

“By operating outside the U.S. coalition, Japan and South Korea hope to minimize their military exposure while also preserving diplomatic ties and economic relations with Iran -- something Prime Minister Abe has so far dexterously achieved,” Townshend said.

--With assistance from Jihye Lee.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Herskovitz in Tokyo at jherskovitz@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Isabel Reynolds

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