TOKYO (AP) — Japan on Friday approved a contentious plan to send its naval troops to the Middle East to ensure the safety of Japanese ships transporting oil to the energy-poor country that heavily depends on imports from the region.
The Cabinet’s decision reflects tensions that have escalated between Iran and the U.S. since President Donald Trump withdrew from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal.
Despite being a U.S. ally, Japan’s troop dispatch is not part of a U.S.-led coalition protecting Middle East waterways, apparently an attempt to maintain neutrality in a show of consideration to Iran.
Under the plan, Japan will send about 260 Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel with a destroyer and a P-3C reconnaissance aircraft, mainly for intelligence-gathering in the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Japan will stay away from the Strait of Hormuz, where the U.S.-led coalition is operating.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explained the plan to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when he visited Tokyo last week.
Japan, which has friendly ties with both Iran and the U.S., also seeks to serve as a mediator between the two and play a greater role in restoring stability in the region, officials said.
The Middle East supplies more than 80% of Japan’s oil needs.
Sending warships to areas of military tension is a highly sensitive issue in Japan because its pacifist post-World War II constitution limits the use of force by the military strictly to self-defense. Abe, however, has gradually expanded Japan’s military role in recent years.
In June, a Japanese-operated tanker was attacked in the Gulf of Oman. Washington said Iran was responsible and urged Japan to join the U.S.-led military initiative.