Abe moves to shape national security debate

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's statement that cited Self-Defence Forces' hypothetical minesweeping operations in the Strait of Hormuz as an example of the exercise of the right of collective self-defence apparently was aimed at taking the initiative in talks on key security legislation between the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito.

Komeito, the LDP's junior coalition partner, is still cautious about allowing minesweeping operations in a framework based on the right of self-defence, so some Komeito members expressed a feeling of discomfort over Abe's statement.

"Of the nation's imported crude oil and natural gas, about 80 per cent of crude oil and more than 20 per cent of natural gas pass through the Strait of Hormuz. From a perspective of energy security, it is quite an important freight route," Abe said in reply to a question during a plenary session of the House of Representatives on Monday.

Abe suggested that a blockade of sea-lanes in the Strait of Hormuz using undersea mines could be considered a situation where there is an impending danger that could fundamentally undermine the people's rights or lives - which is in accordance with the three new conditions for invoking the right of collective self-defence.

Under international law, minesweeping operations before warring parties reach an official ceasefire accord are regarded as use of force. The government and the LDP consider it possible for the Maritime Self-Defence Force to engage in minesweeping operations because "If mines are laid in the strait, it will halt oil supply, which will have a significant impact on the daily lives of Japanese citizens. As a result, the country's existence will be threatened," Defence Minister Gen Nakatani has said. As the MSDF has world-leading minesweeping capabilities, the United States and other countries have high expectations for the MSDF.

Meanwhile, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said on a TV programme last December, "I wonder if laying mines would immediately lead to an economic panic," and showed a negative view of the idea that it could be immediately considered a situation that would meet any of the three new conditions. In addition, Komeito reportedly hopes to avoid giving the impression to the public that the SDF will be dispatched to locations far away from Japan.

In talks between the LDP and Komeito that were held ahead of the Cabinet decision on the reinterpretation of the Constitution to allow the nation's exercise of the right of collective self-defence in July, the ruling parties failed to reach an agreement over whether having undersea mines in the Strait of Hormuz could meet any of the three new conditions, and delayed a decision on the issue.

Concerning the prime minister's statement, a senior Komeito member said: "I was surprised that the prime minister went so far as to say that. I will obtain the minutes of the session and closely read it through to see his true intentions."

Just before Abe made the statement, Komeito Secretary General Yoshihisa Inoue said at the talks between the government and the ruling parties, "We should refrain from making any prejudicial comments."

While the government will submit security-related bills based on the Cabinet decision to the current Diet session, the tug-of-war over the contents of the bills between the LDP and Komeito likely will continue for a while.