TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan ordered on Friday two naval vessels to join international patrols aimed at curbing pirate attacks off Somalia, after months of deliberations on how to help protect cargo ships without breaching its pacifist constitution.
The destroyers are to set off from the port of Kure in southern Japan on Saturday, three months after neighboring China sent its own ships to the Gulf of Aden in a display of its growing naval muscle.
Navy patrols by vessels from 18 countries have helped bring down the number of attacks on cargo ships from a peak of 37 in November to just seven in February.
"Piracy is a threat to the international community, including Japan, and it is an issue that should be dealt with immediately," Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told reporters on Friday after issuing the order.
"It is the government's important responsibility to protect the lives and property of the Japanese in these waters, which are an essential marine traffic area for our country."
Resource-poor Japan imports more than 80 percent of its crude oil from the Middle East, much of which is shipped through the waters now at risk from piracy.
Saturday's dispatch is being ordered under a marine policing law which restricts its activities, but the cabinet also approved on Friday a new bill for submission to parliament that would broaden the legal scope for such missions.
If passed, it would allow Japan's navy to protect ships that have no connection with Japan, and also allow sailors to use weapons in a broader range of circumstances, Japanese media say.
Piracy in and around the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping areas, has become a major problem over the past six months, pushing up marine insurance premiums and forcing some ships to avoid the area.
Japan's recent overseas military missions, such as the dispatch of ground troops to Iraq on a non-combat mission that ended in 2006, have been opposed by voters.
But the anti-piracy mission is largely supported by the public, opinion polls show. A survey in the Yomiuri daily this week found 62 percent of respondents supported the dispatch, up 5 points from the previous survey a month earlier.
Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Paul Tait