Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso expressed a positive view Friday on the possibility of sending Maritime Self-Defence Force vessels to guard commercial freighters and other ships from possible attacks by pirates in waters off Somalia.
While Aso did not elaborate how such an operation would be implemented, his position is likely to stir controversy over whether the MSDF could really engage in anti-piracy missions outside Japan as the use of arms by the Self-Defence Forces overseas is strictly limited under the war-renouncing Constitution.
At a House of Representatives committee session, opposition lawmaker Akihisa Nagashima invited Aso to comment on a proposal that the Japanese government order the MSDF to escort ships in the region off northeastern Africa, where many piracy attacks are known to have taken place.
Nagashima, of the Democratic Party of Japan, told the committee on the issues of antiterrorism and reconstruction of Iraq, "Escorts by SDF ships would be very effective. The dispatch would not be for the purpose of the use of arms."
The premier said, "That kind of proposal is very good. Let us study it."
According to government officials, the government may mobilize the MSDF to protect Japan-related ships in the high seas from possible attacks by pirates but a new law must be instituted if the MSDF were to protect foreign vessels.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura, the top Japanese government spokesman, told a press conference Friday, "If we need a new law, we must consider it."
But a senior official of the Defence Ministry suggested the idea does not immediately sound realistic, given too many legal hurdles the government would have to clear.
In the parliamentary session, DPJ member Keiichiro Asao urged the government to create a new legal framework enabling the SDF to protect vessels including foreign ships from piracy attacks.
"A crackdown on pirates would be more effective to promote Japan's contribution to the international community than the refueling mission," Asao said, referring to the mission the MSDF is currently involved with in the Indian Ocean. The DPJ is opposed to the activity.