Japan is expected to deploy two warships on Saturday to pirate-infested waters off Somalia as the government tries to push through legislation to allow its forces more scope for armed response. Two destroyers will set sail for the world's most dangerous waters near the Gulf of Aden where US, European and Chinese vessels have already been sent to fend off pirates who attacked more than 100 ships last year.
The mission has divided opinion in Japan, where under the post-World War Two pacifist constitution, troops in international disputes can only use force for self defence and to protect Japanese nationals. The prime minister Taro Aso's conservative Liberal Democratic Party this week agreed to legislation paving the way for the mission and to give its roughly 400-strong crew an expanded mandate on when and how to use force.
The proposal would allow Japanese forces to open fire on pirate vessels that do not obey repeated orders to stop. It would also allow them for the first time to protect non-Japanese vessels, citizens and cargo from pirates. The government is expected to approve the bill and submit it to parliament on Friday, the same day the defence minister Yasukazu Hamadan plans to order the dispatch of the destroyers, the Kyodo news agency and other media reported.
The joint navy-coastguard mission would follow Japan's deployment of ground and air troops to Iraq from 2003 to 2008, and of peacekeepers to UN-led missions in Cambodia, Mozambique, the Golan Heights and East Timor, among other places. The planned mission has worried some pacifists, who say it violates Japan's constitution, while others see it as a policing, not military, issue. "So far, Japan has been enjoying a free ride and had other countries protect Japanese ships," said Hidekazu Kawai, the emeritus professor at Gakushuin University.
"So many Japanese ships travel there. It would not be natural for Japan not to send forces to protect civilian ships." About 2,000 Japanese ships sail through Somali waters to cross the Suez Canal each year and the Asian giant's shipping industry has voiced alarm over the cost incurred should vessels have to opt for a safer but longer route. The spate of pirate attacks - including the hijacking of a Panama-flagged Japanese-owned ship late last year - have led some shipping companies to avoid the Suez Canal and, at greater cost, sail around Africa instead.
The plan has worried Japanese peace activists, including Yukio Nishioka in western Hiroshima prefecture, where the two destroyers are docked, who said the naval deployment would threaten Japan's pacifist policies. "Anti-pirate activities are policing duties of the coastguard," he said. "We are extremely concerned about the government's decision to dispatch Self Defence Forces. It is premature." *AFP