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Longread: Japan sucked into The Horn of Africa imbroglio

Analysis

Longread: Japan sucked into The Horn of Africa imbroglio

As the situation in the Horn of Africa becomes more fraught, with different foreign interests locking horns in a deadly battle for dominance, Japan finds itself in an uncomfortable position as it seeks to safeguard its access to African waters, vital for its trade flow. Anver Versi and Joseph Hammond unravel the complex dynamics of the region.

As New African magazine has reported ( see January and May 2019 issues available free digitally with a subscription), the Horn of Africa is becoming an increasingly dangerous flash-point.

Geopolitical dynamics have sucked in the US, China and Russia as well as several non-traditional players – Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Egypt, Yemen and Iran – into an increasingly fractious confrontation.

The recent attack on two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital artery in global oil supply – the second in the space of a few weeks – has upped the ante considerably, with the US blaming it on Iran as a counter-measure to the draconian sanctions imposed on the country’s oil exports.

While the Strait of Hormuz is separated from the Horn by the width of the Arabian Peninsula, the geopolitical dynamics governing both are similar. Tensions are high and at this point, it seems that most of the world is sleepwalking into what might trigger off a conflict that could prove devastating both to the Gulf and Horn regions as well as global economics.

Europe, especially the UK, is locked into its own navel-gazing and incestuous struggles for power; US foreign policy flip-flops according to Donald Trump’s tweets while Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, seems to be totally out of his depth.

Tensions are high and at this point, it seems that most of the world is sleepwalking into what might trigger off a conflict that could prove devastating both to the Gulf and Horn regions as well as global economics.

For Africa, what has been termed the ‘Cold War in the Horn’ has taken an even more insidious turn as the situation in Sudan – culturally and geographically linked to the Horn and the Islamic states to its north – turns ugly, with the army going on a murderous rampage against a protesting population.

The Sudanese military seemed willing to reach accommodation with civil forces before making a vicious about-turn following moral and material support from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt – all allies of the West.

This puts the Sudanese military – which is providing a large contingent of troops for Saudi Arabia’s devastation of Yemen – on a collision course with Iran, Turkey, Qatar and significantly, Russia and perhaps China.

The implications for Africa as an independent entity are enormous. Yet so far, there has been little high- level discussion on this topic at AU level – although in private, many African observers have been ringing warning bells.

The potential that a chance spark in this region could set off a massive explosion seems to be worrying only two leaders – Ethiopia’s PM, Abiy Ahmed and Japan’s PM, Shinzo Abe.

Abe was recently in Tehran in an effort to calm US-Iran tensions.

While Japan’s pacific constitution and its distaste for both sabre-rattling as well as actual combat makes it a strange actor in the Horn, it is nevertheless engaged in the region to a surprising extent, thus adding to an already crowded space.

Japanese maritime defence on alert

In mid-April, after violently storming a Yemeni vessel in the middle of the Indian Ocean, determined Somali pirates attempted to use the dhow as a mothership by launching two attacks on Spanish fishing vessels in the Indian Ocean. 

The seizing of the dhow on 19 April marked the first major incident of Somali piracy for some time. Not since 2017 had a vessel been taken by Somali pirates for use as a ‘mothership’ from which to launch additional attacks. When the dhow was re-captured and freed by EU naval forces on 23 April, five suspected pirates were arrested and a number of hostages released.

The reduced level of piracy off the Horn of Africa has led many nations to cut back on their operations in the area. NATO quietly ended its own anti-piracy operations in 2014. 

While Japan’s pacific constitution and its distaste for both sabre-rattling as well as actual combat makes it a strange actor in the Horn, it is nevertheless engaged in the region to a surprising extent.

However, Japan’s maritime defence forces have remained on alert as part of a growing Japanese commitment to the Horn of Africa.

“Japan remains concerned about the continuing threat posed by piracy off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden,” says a policy statement posted on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website this year.

“Although a marked reduction has been seen in the number of attacks and hijackings since 2012, Japan observes that the underlying causes of piracy remain in place, and the current decline is inherently reversible.”

When Japan originally began its anti-piracy mission in 2009, the Gulf of Aden and the waters of the Horn of Africa saw over 200 piracy incidents a year. In 2011, the turbulence of the Arab Spring contributed to an all-time high of 237 episodes of piracy. Last year, according to sources from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there were just three. 

Though Japan reduced its deployment from two destroyers to one in 2016, it remains committed to the mission and is expanding other aspects of it. Japan continues to operate two P-3C maritime patrol aircraft as part of its operations, and the base it established in Djibouti in 2011,  is home to nearly 200 Japanese personnel.

When Japan originally began its anti-piracy mission in 2009, the Gulf of Aden and the waters of the Horn of Africa saw over 200 piracy incidents a year.

The rationale behind the military base, which was set up by the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF), was to enable Japan to support international naval operations.

Since 2013, three Japanese officers have served as commanders of a multinational force committed to anti-piracy operations, with the primary aim of protecting maritime shipping.

The Bab-el-Mandeb is a vital path for Japan’s international trade, and Japan imports the majority of its energy needs from Middle Eastern oil and gas exporters.

Japan also conceives of African waters as a key part of its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategic vision, which some analysts describe as an effort to offer an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

“When you cross the seas of Asia and the Indian Ocean and come to Nairobi, you then understand very well that what connects Asia and Africa is the sea lanes,” said Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe in Nairobi in 2016, when he unveiled the initiative.

“What will give stability and prosperity to the world is none other than the enormous liveliness brought forth through the union of two free and open oceans and two continents.”

Complex situation

CTF-151 (Combined Task Force 151), the international mission that Japan contributes to, protects maritime shipping in two ways. First, the forces are deployed in convoys to protect ships passing through troubled waters.

Second, the ships also work on ‘zone defence’, or patrolling the large area of the Indian Ocean, with a portion abutting Africa from the Sinai Peninsula to the 10th parallel, which runs just north of Tanzania’s border with Mozambique.

“Anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia provide a low risk means for the Japan Self-Defence Forces to stay engaged in meaningful multinational operations, and offer continued justification for maintenance of Japan’s only forward operating base in Djibouti. It is the only country with whom Japan maintains a Status of Forces Agreement for the JSDF,” ” says Jeffrey Hornung, an East Asian Affairs analyst with the RAND Corporation,.

Japan’s pacifist constitution means it is usually keen to avoid operations with a large amount of political risk. However, Japan’s deployment in the Horn of Africa may flout those rules.

The political risk in the region has grown with the war in Yemen. Iran-supported Houthi militants have been known to deploy free-floating mines in the Bab-el-Mandeb, part of the CTF-151’s operating area.

The mysterious recent attacks on oil tankers heading to East Asia in another
key waterway (the Strait of Hormuz), which have been blamed on Iran, attest to the complex situation.

Furthermore, Djibouti has been at the heart of the Egyptian-Saudi-UAE-led embargo of Qatar, accusing the tiny Emirati state of having ties to Islamist groups. 

The embargo was meant to punish Qatar but, arguably, no country has suffered more geopolitical damage than Djibouti.

Qatar responded to Djibouti’s action by withdrawing a roughly 500-strong Qatari peacekeeping force deployed to a disputed border region between Djibouti and Eritrea. The sudden withdrawal benefited Eritrea, which seized the contested border region outright.

Japan’s pacifist constitution means it is usually keen to avoid operations with a large amount of political risk. However, Japan’s deployment in the Horn of Africa may flout those rules.

 

Interlocking pieces

As we reported in New African’s January issue, according to Awol Allo, a UK-based law professor and frequent commentator on Ethiopia and the Horn region, in the last few years, the Horn of Africa has become a battleground where Middle Eastern rivalries are played out.

“Different groupings have engaged with the region in pursuit of their own interests. Some have been more successful than others, but the question for many is whether African countries are able to make these relationships work for them.”

The question now is whether Africa can control the forces unleashed and somehow extricate itself from the coils of external interests. We have also reported that in recent years, the US has gradually come to perceive the
rise of China and Russia, and not terrorism, as the biggest threat it is facing in Africa and elsewhere.

Different groupings have engaged with the region in pursuit of their own interests…the question for many is whether African countries are able to make these relationships work for them.

“Great Power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of the US national security,” said the then US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, in a speech outlining his country’s 2018 National Defence Strategy. “We face growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia are from each other.”

In news elsewhere, Turkey had plans to develop maritime facilities in Sudan, and as the protests against President Omar al-Bashir grew in March, a Turkish warship visited Port Sudan.

This is the same port that International Container Terminal Services Inc, a Filipino port operating company, quietly scooped up a contract for at the height of the protests against President Omar al-Bashir, despite the political turmoil in that country.

On 23 April, just days after the toppling of Bashir, Sudan’s military rulers suspended the contract.

This is just one more example of the interlocking pieces that are increasingly coming together to create a climate of fear and uncertainty over the Horn and its hinterland. 

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