It is well known that a number of different units and vessels from several nations are deployed to the area surrounding Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. Of the “major players”, one of the less well known is Japan, which has set up a continuing presence under the “Japanese Facility for Counter-Piracy Mission in Djibouti”.
The unit made it to the news earlier this year when they played an important part in the interception of a dhow used by Somali pirates. Although the interception and boarding of the dhow was carried out by the Operation Atalanta flagship FS Siroco (L 9012), the dhow was, according to the official homepage of the EU NAVFOR, initially located by a Japanese maritime patrol aircraft and a helicopter from the Japanese vessel JS Samidare (DD-106), which operates in associated support to the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF/CTF 151).
The Japanese maritime patrol aircraft mentioned was one of the sizeable fleet of P-3C Orion’s operated by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s air arm, while the helicopter was a SH-60 Seahawk (of the J- or K-version). In keeping with Japanese customs, both are manufactured locally, by Kawasaki and Mitsubishi respectively. As mentioned, the Seahawk’s operate from the Japanese Murasame-class destroyer JS Samidare (eng. ‘Spring rain’). The rather modern outfit of the Japanese units in the area is somewhat in contrast to the French, who apparently sent an aging Alouette III-helicopter to the scene.
The job apparently went well, and the NAVFOR has published some nice pictures of the boarding on their homepage. More interesting than the raid itself, however, is the presence of Japanese fixed-wing assets in the area.
As an effect of WWII, Japan has an anti-militaristic constitution, with the famous article 9 stating that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained“. Still, the use of “Self-defense forces” as opposed to simply “Defense forces” in the name does not hide the fact that Japan has a well-equipped defense force. A more concrete effect has been the reluctance to participate in operations abroad, with the first Japanese peace-keeping deployment taking place only back in 1992, when a non-combatant force was sent to Cambodia as part of the UNTAC. However, during the last twenty years, a rapid shift in policy has taken place, and in recent years the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has gone so far as to publicly call for Article 9 to be removed.
This is where the Japanese Facility for Counter-Piracy Mission in Djibouti comes in. Even if the word ‘Base’ is avoided (apparently due to article 9) it is very clear that with the creation of the facility back in 2011, for the first time since WWII, Japan has set up a military base in foreign territory. The counter-piracy operation consists of a destroyer, Orion’s operating from the base, and the Japanese Special Boarding Unit (the navy’s elite unit modeled after SBS and the SEAL). In itself, the base is rather unspectacular, both France and the USA have armed forces based in Djibouti, but its symbolic value is high enough for Abe to visit it in August last year.
The thing to remember is that all this is happening against the backdrop of rising tensions in the Far East. The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute that flared up last year is still simmering, and only this week China and Malaysia had a quarrel over a Chinese report on a naval maneuver that was supposedly held in disputed waters at the James Shoal in the South China Sea. Both South Korea and China have been eyeing the rising Japanese self-esteem with worry, while South Korea and Japan share a common mistrust against the growing Chinese ambitions (supported by a rapidly growing modern navy). It remains to be seen whether South Korea and Japan will find each other as allies due to their common fear of China, or if the memory of the Japanese occupation still is too fresh. Rising energy prices and a stalling Japanese economy might easily tip the country into trying to tighten their grip of disputed oil and gas reserves in the East China Sea, something that naturally could lead to clashes with China as it aspires to become a ‘true’ superpower.