Japan to send its own forces to protect Middle East shipping

Tokyo declines to join US coalition in guarding waterway crucial to global energy supplies

FILE PHOTO: Oil tankers pass through the Strait of Hormuz, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo
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Japan will send its own ships and planes to protect its merchant vessels in the Arabian Gulf, an official said on Friday, rejecting calls to join a US coalition formed to safeguard shipping in the region.

"We won't join the United States, but will co-operate closely with them," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news briefing. "Self Defence Force assets will ensure the safety of vessels related to Japan."

Military assets Japan sends to the Middle East are likely to include warships and aircraft that will patrol the Gulf of Oman, the Northern Arabian Sea and other waters in the area, the Japanese government's chief spokesman said.

Japan has yet to decide the make-up of the contingent or when it will deploy the force, he said.

The US efforts to set up the security coalition followed increasing tensions with Iran over its sanctions on Tehran's oil exports and a series of unclaimed attacks on ships in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman – waterways used by oil tankers supplying much of the world's oil. The US has blamed Iran for the attacks.

Several countries including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Britain and Australia have joined the US coalition, known as the International Maritime Security Construct. Its members have committed troops, planes and ships to accompany and track vessels passing through the Gulf.

Although it is the closest Asian ally of the United States, Japan has been reluctant to join the US initiative because it maintains close diplomatic and economic ties with Iran. Tokyo has offered to act as a intermediary between the two countries to help ease tension in the region.