December 3, 2007

Japanese Ship Sails Dangerous Waters

Hatched by Sachi

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to a naval officer in the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF). The conversation turned to the Japanese role on the war on global hirabah, as Dafydd calls it (the global war on terrorism, GWOT, as everyone else calls it).

You might not know that under Japan's pacifist constitution, the JMSDF is not legally allowed to engage in any aggressive war, regardless of its merits. However, as our ally, they are allowed (and obligated) to help our war effort in a limited, non-violent capacity. .. which they used to do by refueling American naval ships in the Indian Ocean, among other tasks.

But this effort was halted at the insistance of the opposition parties in the Japanese Diet (parliament); by refusing to support the anti-terrorism bill that fostered such cooperation, the opposition effectively made sure it would expire:

Japan's government ordered its ships supporting U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan to return home Thursday, after opposition lawmakers refused to support an extension of the mission, saying it violated the country's pacifist constitution....

It was an embarrassing retreat for Japan's new Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who was a strong advocate of the six-year mission and had vowed to pass legislation that would let Japan take on at least a more limited role in fighting terrorism in the region.

The order also reflected the growing power of Japan's main opposition party, which made significant gains in elections in July and is pushing to scale back the country's role in international peacekeeping efforts that involve military operations.

Many Japanese do not understand the urgent need to protect their own country. They think the GWOT is something Americans are doing which does not affect Japan at all. Some members of the Diet argue that cooperating with the US will unnecessary endanger Japan; and the Japanese "mainstream media" openly criticize the JMSDF for becoming almost a part of the United States Navy.

But the fact is that Japanese commercial ships are routinely attacked on the high seas by terrorists and pirates. Yes, pirates -- in 2007. And we're not talking Captain Jack Sparrow here: A Japanese blogger (probably female, but bloggers in Japan rarely have "about me" pages on their blogs) called Usagi ni Kaze (兎に風) reminds us of an incident that occurred three years ago. The link is to an English translation; I have left it mostly uncorrected:

April 24, 2004. British Navy assigned to Persian Gulf in part of multinational forces noticed dubious 3 high-speed boat approaching to the Japanese tanker ”Takasuzu” that was piered to the oil-loading port near Basra. Apparently 3 small boats were the self-exploding terrorist attacking the tanker.

The British Norfolk operation log reported that oil-loading port terminal became a target of terrorists. One of the high-speed boats exploded about several hundred-meters off from Takasuzu tanker. The bullets were biting into body of the Tanker making a big hole, and iron-wraught door blew apart. Unfortunately 2 US Marine Corps and and 1 Coast Guard died. Terror was blocked but 3 lost lives.

I think she (or he) means the terrorists were shooting at the tanker before setting off the explosives on the small boat.

My Japanese officer acquaintance reports that Japanese combat ships are not allowed to patrol the area, not even to protect Japanese shipping. Even if a naval vessel happened to have been there, it's not likely they could have done much, because of their overly restrictive rules of engagement.

"Even if we are attacked, we can only fight back with the equivalent power," my acquaintance said. "That means if the terrorists use pistols, we cannot shoot back at them with machine guns. What happens if a boat filled with explosives approaches? Which weapon is the Japanese destroyer allowed to use? Who knows?" He sounded quite frustrated.

Usai ni Kaze and other Japanese bloggers point to this much more recent attack on a Japanese ship to show that the situation is not improving:

A Japanese chemical tanker with 23 Korean, Filipino and Myanmar crew on board has been hijacked off the coast of northern Somalia, a piracy watchdog and officials said Monday. The vessel, believed to be carrying oil products, sent out a distress message on Sunday which was picked up by a rescue centre in Norway and relayed to the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre here. "We tried to establish contact with the ship but we failed to get any response, so we than contacted coalition warships in the area," IMB spokesman Noel Choong told AFP. The coalition naval forces informed the IMB that the ship then entered Somali territorial waters, meaning no rescue could be initiated, he said.

Acccording to CNN Japan, two American destroyers, the Arleigh Burke and the Porter, chased after the pirates. As several Japanese bloggers have pointed out, the Japanese media barely even reported this attack; they're so quiet that the details of the attack are very sketchy.

The Somalian ocean is notoriously dangerous due to rampant piracy; it's the Tortuga of the twenty-first century. Last March, two U.S. Navy warships, the cruiser Cape St. George and the destroyer Gonzalez, exchanged gunfire with pirates off the coast of Somalia:

The battle started after the USS Cape St. George and USS Gonzalez, which were patrolling as part of a Dutch-led task force, spotted a 30-foot fishing boat towing smaller skiffs and prepared to board and inspect the vessels.

The suspected pirates were holding what appeared to be rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the navy said. When the suspects began shooting, naval gunners returned fire with mounted machine guns, killing one man and igniting a fire on the vessel.

(I have some personal knowledge of this incident; a current co-worker of mine (American) was aboard the Gonzalez during the firefight.)

The reason Japanese media is silent about these incidents is that they want to play down the real danger Japanese commercial ships face on the open ocean. They know that if Japanese realized how dangerous maritime activity had become, they would demand that the "Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force" become an actual blue-water navy... which would require the constitution be changed; Japan is an island nation that lives by the sea trade, and Japanese know how vital that is to their own livelihood.

For further evidence of Japan's need for a real navy, and the weakness caused by its lack, see also our series about South Korea, Japan, and the island of Takeshima:

Some concerned Japanese bloggers are very frustrated by the fact that the Japanese government, by law, currently keeps its ships defenseless against terrorists and pirates. "Don't forget," Usagi ni Kaze writes in another post, "three Americans have lost their lives protecting our ship." She (he) thinks it's disgraceful that Japanese purposely allowed the anti-terrorist resolution to lapse, thus forcing Japan to cease protecting the freedom of the seas -- or even its own shipping -- while still giving "plausible deniability" to ministers and members of the Diet who don't want to be seen as endangering Japanese merchant vessels.

Today's AP story addresses the growing problems in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia, the follow up to the seized Japanese tanker incident:

The U.S.-led coalition working to secure sea lanes beset by pirates believe skiffs like the ones used in the attack on the Japanese ship must have come from elusive "mother ships...." [They mean a larger ship that launches the small skiffs and other boats that carry out the actual attack; the larger ship would be the "base" which must be destroyed to stop the pirates or terrorists.]

The International Maritime Bureau has recorded 31 attacks off Somalia this year but believe many more go unreported.

The 31 includes the seizure a month ago of a Japanese tanker carrying as much as 40,000 tons of highly explosive benzene in the Gulf of Aden.

Initially, American intelligence agents worried terrorists from Somalia's Islamic extremist insurgency could be involved and might try to crash the boat into an offshore oil platform or use it as a gigantic bomb in a Middle Eastern port.

When the Japanese vessel was towed back into Somali waters and ransom demanded, the coalition was relieved to realize it was just another pirate attack.

The more recent attack on a separate Japanese vessel occurred some 85 nautical miles from Somalia in the busy lanes used by boats entering the Suez Canal -- too far for the two small boats carrying pirates to have come from shore. Some attacks are even farther from land, as much as 250 nautical miles, Hasham said.

The pirates boarded the Japanese vessel before their skiffs were destroyed and remain aboard. The U.S. Navy has in the past persuaded pirates to abandon ships they have boarded and still hoped to do so in the case of the Japanese vessel -- though that might be complicated now that the pirates no longer have skiffs on which to leave.

No warship has located a mother ship yet, although that could be due to the continuos radio chatter they put out to warn pirates that they are patrolling the area in an effort to deter attacks. However, numerous ship captains have reported seeing the bigger pirate vessels.

Thanks to blogs and other media outlets, the Japanese people are slowly waking up. I am hopeful that the resolution will be re-approved, and that refueling in the Indian Ocean will resume; just as Democrats here in America will be forced, in the end, to approve funding for the Iraq war without an attached date for America to surrender to the terrorists. In America, sanity usually prevails; I am not so sure about Japan, though.

In any event, the pace at which the Japanese are navigating this water is agonizingly slow and nerve-wracking.

Hatched by Sachi on this day, December 3, 2007, at the time of 3:19 PM

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Tracked on December 14, 2007 2:39 AM


The following hissed in response by: xennady

Interesting (first?) post. But I suppose I have to disagree a small bit. Sanity as defined by most if not all US allies and other friendly nations doesn't mean ponying up blood and treasure to accomplish our shared goals. It means giving lip service to US concerns and doing as little as possible that involves risk- political or otherwise. And since the US will pretty much do what needs to be done anyway why should they change? In this case the US continues to pursue pirates that are attacking Japanese shipping even though Japan is disinclined to continue their rather puerile contribution to the GWOT. My suggestion is that the US Navy cease protecting shipping that is not flagged in the US. Of course, that ain't gonna happen. In other words, the US is a big fat hairy chump, and the world knows it.

The above hissed in response by: xennady [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 3, 2007 6:19 PM

The following hissed in response by: Binder

Another typically thought-provoking post about Japan's foreign policies, Sachi.

I decided several years ago that Japan is very conflicted about Article IX; the constant tug between having a backbone and passive near-pacifism shows up quite a lot in Japanese entertainment (particularly anime), but such shows rarely, in my experience, make direct references to the constitution when they're doing it. And even in these fictional situations, the directors usually come down on the side of pacifism and sitting back while more aggressive people have their way with the world...except for the heroes who typically want to go for the pacifism, but can't sit back while other people use force. In particular, the last year or 18 months has seen a number of shows where a faction decides to forcibly pacify the entire world. If that isn't a sign of inner conflict, I don't know what is.

Outside of entertainment, this conflicted nature shows up in the scale of the Japanese military. Unless something's changed in the last five or so years, Japan was well on the way to having the third largest, second most powerful & modern "Navy" in the Pacific, behind only the USN and PRC in size, and only the USN in power & modernization. They were even attempting to build some "helicopter destroyers" which anyone else would have termed a light aircraft carrier; if things went as planned the first should be about finished now, though I can't find any info more up-to-date than about '05.

It's very odd to have a very powerful military, but completely hamstring its ability to do anything, even self-protection of its own units -- to say nothing of limiting its ability to protect Japanese nationals & property overseas. Just more evidence of how conflicted the Japanese seem to be over Article IX. I don't know what the solution would be. Like the situations with S. Korea and the islands and China re: the Nanjing Massacre, Japan more or less has to stand up for itself. But it doesn't seem to want to...

The above hissed in response by: Binder [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 4, 2007 4:43 AM

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