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Why Does Japan Have a Military Base in Djibouti?

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Tokyo Report | Security | East Asia

Why Does Japan Have a Military Base in Djibouti?

The unfolding crisis in Sudan has drawn attention to Japan’s only overseas base – and some of the problems surrounding the installation.

Why Does Japan Have a Military Base in Djibouti?

JGSDF soldiers salute an officer during a ceremony at the Japanese base in Djibouti, Jan. 8, 2020.

Credit: Japanese Ministry of Defense

The fallout of a power struggle within the Sudanese military ranks has ignited an armed conflict, which is unfolding as a humanitarian disaster for the locals and endangering the lives of foreign nationals. Increasingly concerned about the fate of their own people, nations have announced they are evacuating their embassies or sending forces for rescue missions in Sudan. 

Japan, one of the many nations alarmed by the situation in Sudan, has announced that its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) will dispatch their own aircraft to the East African nation of Djibouti, which hosts Japan’s only overseas base, in order to help evacuate diplomatic personnel and natives. Although the contentious situation in Sudan is starting to gain attention in Japan, the SDF response raises a more basic question: Why does Japan have a military base in the Republic of Djibouti in the first place?

Initially, the need for a Japanese base in Djibouti arose due to piracy. After a spike in the number of pirate attacks around the Gulf of Aden in 2008, the issue emerged on the radar of not only Japan but also the international community writ large. The Gulf of Aden faces one of the planet’s most crucial maritime chokepoints, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, through which the bulk of the world’s oil and commerce flows. Concerned that a surge in piracy here would have real consequences for the global economy, the United Nations General Assembly passed multiple resolutions calling for deterring piracy, and a number of countries turned to Djibouti to install bases for their anti-piracy operations.

For Japan the stability of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, to which the piracy eventually spread, was even more pressing since Japan’s wellbeing as a nation was on the line. According to a government report on anti-piracy efforts, approximately 1,700 Japanese-related commercial vessels and 18 percent of exported automobiles – Japan’s driving economic force – travel through the Gulf of Aden. Beyond that, Japan’s heavy dependence on oil from the Middle East – which supplies close to 90 percent of Japan’s oil – multiplied the necessity for Japan to be more committed around the region.

With such high security concerns, Japan took the unprecedented step of acquiring a base on Djibouti’s territory, utilizing it as a hub to secure safe navigation for Japanese maritime commerce. 

In 2009, Japan and Djibouti signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which laid the legal foundation for the Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF) to station troops in Djibouti. Two years later, Japan’s first overseas military base was opened on Djibouti soil. Since then, the number of piracy incidents has plummeted, which indicates that international collaboration – including Japan’s efforts – has had a chilling effect on piracy. 

Nevertheless, the Japanese populace scarcely registered the fact that Japan now dispatches troops to a foreign land in East Africa. Even less recognized in Japan is the unequal nature of the SOFA that Japan ratified with Djibouti. Critics of the SOFA accuse it of being an unequal agreement, since it renders Japanese military members immune from any type of criminal accusation under Djibouti domestic law – exactly the same situation that many Japanese decry as it applies to U.S. troops in Japan.

The SOFA with Djibouti states that Japan has the right to exercise “all the criminal jurisdiction and disciplinary powers conferred on them by the laws and regulations of Japan” within Djibouti’s territory. Even the Japan-U.S. SOFA, which some Japanese argue shields U.S. military personnel who commit crimes from being prosecuted, acknowledges that there are circumstances when the hosting nation – in this case Japan – can exercise criminal jurisdiction. Conversely, the language in the Japan-Djibouti SOFA seems extreme, as Japan assumes jurisdiction over “all” criminal cases involving its military personnel. 

The unique treatment that Japan received from Djibouti regarding criminal jurisdiction has been pointed out by outside observers. For instance, U.S. Senator Mike Lee criticized the Japan-Djibouti SOFA for allowing Japanese service members [to be] immune from criminal prosecution,” in the context of criticizing Japan’s detainment of a U.S. Navy officer in Japan, whom Lee believes was falsely convicted.

The legal immunity granted by the Djibouti government to Japanese SDF personnel could be seen as a reflection of the amount of trust the former places in the latter. However, the problem is that Japan itself lacks any laws that deal with the misconduct of military personnel on overseas missions. In other words, Japan, at the moment, has no way to hold SDF members accountable, should the need to do so arise under the SOFA. 

The Japanese government also acknowledges these circumstances. Former Defense Minister Kono Taro has previously emphasized that overseas crimes of SDF members cannot be penalized under the current Japanese legal system. 

The role that the Japanese base in Djibouti is playing amid raging conflict in Sudan has proven its significance not only in securing the freedom of navigation, which is vital for Japan’s national interest, but also in protecting the lives of Japanese citizens who are endangered by instability on the African continent – and possibly in the Middle East, too. However, the absence of a mechanism for Japanese forces to take full responsibility for their actions could jeopardize relations with Djibouti. If a situation arises where an SDF member harms a local and doesn’t face any consequences, public unrest could flare up.

Japan should reckon with the legal insufficiency that exists in its SOFA with Djibouti by adopting a legal framework that can hold overseas SDF members accountable.