Japan offers enduring support for anti-piracy operations

Japan offers enduring support for anti-piracy operations

Joseph Hammond

As other nations shift their priorities away from the Somali coastline because of declining incidence of piracy, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) plans to maintain its naval presence to protect vital shipping lanes.

The first Somali pirate attack in seven months occurred in April 2019. Crews operating under the European Union Naval Force’s (EU NAVFOR’s) Operation Atalanta eventually freed a Yemeni dhow that was captured by pirates who tried to use the vessel as a mother ship from which to launch more attacks. The EU flagship ESPS Navarra intercepted and boarded the dhow on April 23, 2019, arresting five suspected pirates and releasing 23 hostages.

Japan’s recent naval deployment confirms Tokyo’s support for continuing such operations. The DD Asagiri, a Japanese destroyer, arrived at the Mina Salman Port in Bahrain on April 13, 2019. Japanese personnel deployed there are involved with the two combined task forces (CTF) involved in anti-piracy operations.

“Japan has supported CTF-150 and CTF-151 since 2009, providing JMSDF air and maritime assets as well as headquarters personnel,” said Mike Bosack, special advisor for government affairs at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. (Pictured: Officers of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel JS Amagiri, an Asagiri-class destroyer, stand at attention while the crew prepares to dock at a Philippine harbor.)

Japan’s only permanent forward operating base is in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. The African base is home to 200 Japanese military personnel and is set for an expansion. Japan has been contributing forces to anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2009, engaging in missions that come with physical and political risks.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Japan have separate military facilities in Djibouti, and the two have not always been amicable neighbors. In 2017, the Chinese government complained that JMSFD frogmen were approaching Chinese warships in Djibouti.

The magnet that attracts nations to Djibouti is its strategic location near the Bab el-Mandeb strait. Djibouti provides a deep-water port at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It is situated next to a shipping lane that connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean and is the route for about 30% of all global shipping. Troops from France and the U.S. also are stationed in Djibouti.

The heavy traffic made the shipping lanes a ripe target for Somali pirates. Their crime wave peaked in 2011 when 237 ships were attacked and 28 hijacked, according to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2019, there have been just three reported incidents of piracy.

Due to the successful crackdown on the pirates, NATO closed up shop on Operation Ocean Shield — its contribution to anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa — in 2016. EU NAVFOR’s Operation Atalanta has no mandate beyond December 2020.

Some analysts contend there is more at stake than protecting commerce. “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the free and open Indo-Pacific initiative in 2016,” said Jeff Hornung, an analyst with the Rand Corp. “What is often forgotten is that decree was made in Nairobi, Kenya. The Japanese conception of the Indo-Pacific includes much more of Africa than the similar American geopolitical view.”

Japan’s continued involvement in Africa pays other dividends, Hornung said.

“Participating in multinational maritime forces and involvement in international operations increases the operational experience of Japanese forces,” he said. “Such operations also offer a rejoinder to those who say Japan’s commitment to peace promotion is focused solely on developmental aid.”

Joseph Hammond is a FORUM contributor based in London. He recently returned from a reporting trip in the Indo-Pacific region.