Tokyo to protect ships in Gulf of Oman after attacks

Reportedly shows an Iranian navy boat trying to control fire from Norwegian owned Front Altair tanker said to have been attacked in the waters of the Gulf of Oman. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Japan will send a warship and patrol planes to protect Japanese merchant ships in the Middle East as the volatile region has experienced a number of attacks.

According to a cabinet document dated 27 December 2019, a helicopter-equipped destroyer and two P-3C patrol planes will be dispatched to collect intelligence aimed at ensuring safe passage for Japanese vessels through the region.

If there are any emergencies, the Japanese defence minister will issue a special order to permit the forces to use weapons to protect ships in danger. Other than that, the forces are not to draw their weapons.

Since 2018, when US President Donald Trump re-imposed sanctions on Iran, friction between the two countries has gone up and ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman have been subjected to attacks and risks.

In May and June 2019, there were several attacks on international merchant vessels, including the 27,000 dwt products tanker Kokuka Courageous, in the region, which the United States blamed on Iran. The owner of the Kokuka Courageous, Kokuka Sangyo of Japan, which was hit by a blast on 13 June 2019, stated that the crew saw a flying object just before the blast. The sighting gave rise to speculations that a surveillance drone could have tracked the tanker prior to the blast. The Attack on the Kokuka Courageous and a Frontline tanker, Front Altair, resulted in 44 crew members having to evacuate. The Iranian government has denied the accusations that it masterminded the attacks.

Japan is a US ally but has maintained friendly ties with Iran. This could be why Japanese premier Shinzo Abe decided that his government should take responsibility for protecting locally owned ships instead of  joining a US-led mission to protect shipping in the region. Abe had on 20 December, informed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was on a state visit to Tokyo, on his government’s plan to send naval forces to the Gulf of Oman, the northern Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

In addition, the Middle East accounts for 90% of Japan’s crude oil imports, and protecting the ships would be akin to maintaining energy security. Japan’s plans to protect its locally owned ships comes after a similar move by the Indian government in June 2019.

The patrol planes are set to arrive in the region in January, while the destroyer will likely begin activities in the region in February. A European operation to ensure safe shipping in the Gulf of Oman will also begin next month, when a French warship starts patrolling there.