Japan expands military presence in Africa despite drop in Somalia piracy

Japan is increasing its footprint in the Horn of Africa even as it draws down its anti-piracy force

Pirates or no pirates, Japan remains committed to an international security operation off the Horn of Africa which is increasingly a cornerstone of its wider Africa policy.

Last month Somali pirates successfully captured a Yemeni dhow which they subsequently used as “mothership” for attacks on two Spanish fishing vessels, the first successful capture of such a vessel since 2017.

Such spectacular attacks are a bit of an anomaly these days. These are not the “pirate-infested” waters that they indeed were just a few years ago.

Indeed, according to statistics displayed on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, Somali piracy is in decline though the instability and poverty in the country that drove the crime wave remain an issue. In 2019 there have been just three incidents of piracy. The attack on the dhow aside, Somali piracy this year will likely not reach its peak of 2011 when 237 ships were attacked and 28 successfully hijacked.

Not surprisingly NATO closed up shop for Operation Ocean Shield – its contribution to anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa – in 2016. EU Naval forces (EUNAVFOR) Operation Atalanta to the Horn of Africa has no mandate past December 2020.

Yet, for the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces it’s been full-steam ahead. Japan, while reducing its deployment of two destroyers to one in 2016, has simultaneously sought to expand its footprint in the Horn of Africa.

A token number of Japanese personnel are deployed to Bahrain, where the multinational Combined Task Force 151 is based. CTF-151 was set-up to provide an independent multinational framework for joint anti-piracy operations. However, Japan’s main base for these operations is Djibouti where Japan is planning to expand its operations.

“The mission reinforces Japan’s commitment to a rules-based international order while providing an essential service in preserving safe passage through maritime corridors critical to Japan’s economy and energy security,” says Mike Bosack, Special Advisor for Government Affairs at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies.

It is unclear how much Japan is paying to rent its facility in Djibouti. Nor will this mark the first expansion; the Japanese military facility, which has been in operation since 2013, announced an expansion from 13 to 15 leased hectares in 2017.

In 2017, China opened its own base in Djibouti that is 50 hectares and is China’s first overseas base.

“The fact that China is also in Djibouti adds impetus to Japan’s need for SDF presence in Africa,” Bosack told The Defense Post. “The Japanese Ministry of Defense has examined the possibility of making Djibouti a regional hub for the JSDF, but officials are not yet sure what purpose that hub would serve during steady-state, peacetime operations.”

The base has already served a supporting role for Japanese efforts in Africa. In 2016 the base was used to facilitate the evacuation of Japanese nationals from South Sudan as fighting flared that country’s ongoing civil war.

Japan’s use of military force is bound by its pacifist constitution installed by the victorious allies at the end of World War II. In 2009, a special law was passed in Japan to allow Japanese forces to participate in the international maritime self-defense forces.  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (in a sop to nationalists in his party) has also considered changes to the constitution which would remove or change pacifist clauses embedded in the constitution.

“The threat of loss of life in anti-piracy operations is minimal, since they are largely surveillance and escort-related and the JMSDF is not authorized to conduct opposed boardings,” said Bosack.

However, the Japanese base does not come without some geopolitical risk. The ongoing war in Yemen and the embargo against Qatar have all raised tensions in the Horn of Africa.

Above all the opening of Chinese military base is a potential issue of contention. Last year the United States Department of Defense accused China of launching laser attacks on American airmen over Djibouti, where the U.S. also maintains an important airbase. China denied the accusation.

In 2017, Chinese media reported that Japanese frogmen had approached a Chinese warship in Djibouti before being driven off. That same year Djiboutian President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh said in an interview that the Japanese government was even more worried than the Americans by the Chinese base in Djibouti.

China has also sold a number of weapon systems to Djibouti and provided aid. However, so has Japan, contributing $14.60 million to the IMO Djibouti Code Trust Fund, – a multi-donor trust fund which it initiated – for capacity-building in the region, and paying for the construction of a training center in Djibouti.

Japanese forces have provided other support to the Djibouti coast guard and trained other coast guards in the region.

However, Japan has other interests and concerns not linked to China, not least of which is a commitment to a free and open navigation of international waters – a cornerstone Abe policy.

“Japan plays a leading role in the economic development of many African nations … Japanese peacekeepers often play a role in such missions, as there are no potential constitutional violations with such aid,” said Jeffrey Hornung, an East Asian Affairs analyst with the RAND Corporation.

Indeed the efficacy of the deployed Japanese assets, including the destroyer and the P-3C Orion patrol aircraft in anti-piracy work cannot be doubted. The arrest of suspected pirates believed responsible for the April attack on the two Spanish fishing vessels was only possible after P-3C aircraft flown by the German military as part of Operation Atalanta successfully located the pirate mothership and alerted sailors aboard the Spanish frigate Navarra.

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