Japan and the Security of SLOCs in the Middle East

By: Professor. Satoshi Ikeuchi
Professor, Global Security and Religion, University of Tokyo.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joseph Dunford said on July 9 that the United States hopes to enlist allies in a military coalition to safeguard strategic waters off Iran and Yemen.

His remarks resonate with President Trump’s June 24 tweets on his dissatisfaction with heavy burden which the U.S. shares in protecting tanker ships in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

The United States asks East Asia’s oil importing and oil consuming countries such as Japan and China to share more burden in securing the Sea Lines of Communications in the Middle East.

This is neither an unacceptable requirement, nor an illegitimate one.

Security of the SLOCs in the Gulf is of vital interest for Japan. Japan imports almost all crude oil and natural gas from abroad and 80% of which is brought from countries on the north and south shores of the Gulf. The oil and gas are largely transported to Japan through the Strait of Hormuz which is the world’s most vulnerable chokepoint. Japan’s energy security will be shaken if a military conflict takes place and safe passage of tankers are obstructed or threatened.

Even if the importance of the Persian Gulf has diminished for the United States, the importance of stability of it will continue to be vital for Japan.

Japan already has an experience. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have been taking part in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden for 10 years. Japanese forces set up a facility in Djibouti for this mission. By expanding the range of that anti-piracy activity to the Strait of Hormuz, Japan can share some burden in securing the sea lanes connecting the Gulf and the East Asia.

But there are conditions for that. Japan need partnerships with the Gulf energy exporting countries.

In May and June, tankers of Japan, Saudi and UAE were attacked by hostile entities outside the Strait of Hormuz within the UAE’s territorial waters. Oil importing countries and exporting countries have a common interest in the security of the oil transportation routes and there must be a common framework in which both exert an effort together to maintain peace and stability in the region.

Japan has a rare position as an advanced industrial country not to have hostile relationships with any of the Middle Eastern countries. Japan shall keep that valuable position in any circumstances.

Also, the US demand for oil-importing countries to defend their ships may lead to a historic sea change by bringing in China and India into the security architecture of the Persian Gulf and in the wider Middle East.