TOKYO (AFP) — Japan on Thursday ordered home ships engaged on a refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean, halting the close US ally’s main role in the “war on terror” due to domestic opposition.
Japan, which has been officially pacifist since the end of World War II, has supplied fuel to US and other forces operating in Afghanistan under legislation first passed after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
But the government failed to extend the mission as the main opposition party, which controls one house of parliament, has vowed that Japan should not take part in “American wars.”
Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba issued orders at 3:00 pm (0600 GMT) for Japan’s two ships in the Indian Ocean — the destroyer Kirisame and the supply ship Tokiwa — to return to Japan.
Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, whose predecessor quit in September in part due to his failure to prolong the deployment, vowed to “do my utmost for the swift passage” of new legislation to resume the operation.
“Terrorism is a challenge against free and open societies. The war on terrorism affects our national interests,” Fukuda said in a statement.
“It is surely necessary for us to continue refuelling activities in order to fulfil our responsibilities in solidarity with the international community which is trying to eradicate terrorism,” he said.
But public opinion on the mission is sharply divided in Japan, whose military has not fired a shot in combat since the United States imposed a pacifist constitution after World War II.
The United States Thursday strongly urged Japan to reconsider its decision.
“We would like for those refuellings to continue and we will be talking to the Japanese,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, adding that Fukuda would likely come to the United States in two weeks.
Coalition nations had tried for weeks with no success to persuade the opposition to change its mind.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer voiced “concern” about Japan’s move.
“Defeating terrorists is one of the highest security challenges the world faces. It is a global challenge and combating terrorism is a collective responsibility,” Downer said.
US ambassador Thomas Schieffer at one point warned that the opposition risked harming the two countries’ alliance, although Washington later softened its tone.
Criticism has been growing of military operations among nations taking part in the deadly campaign against remnants of Afghanistan’s extremist Taliban regime.
The German parliament last month extended the country’s troop deployment despite waning public support.
But Japan is in a unique political situation. The opposition in July won control of one house of parliament on a backlash over a raft of scandals under the government of then prime minister Shinzo Abe.
Main opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa — ironically a longtime proponent of an active military role for Japan — has vowed to fight Fukuda on his legislative priorities until he calls early general elections.
Fukuda and Ozawa are due to hold talks Friday after a meeting earlier this week failed to reach a breakthrough.
Fukuda’s “ability to manage the administration will come into question if he requests meetings twice and reaches no agreement,” said Naoto Kan, Ozawa’s deputy.
Ozawa’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has accused the government of politicising the dispute.
“The battleships are coming home and they want to put the blame on the DPJ. This is an Afghan trap to make the DPJ look evil,” said Kenji Yamaoka, the party’s parliamentary affairs chief.
The Indian Ocean mission at the time was groundbreaking for Japan, although it later went a step further and sent troops, since withdrawn, on a non-combat reconstruction mission to Iraq.
Eager to show it remains committed to the “war on terror,” Japan said it would look at stepping up aid to Afghanistan and possibly Pakistan, a frontline US ally in the war.
Japan, which has already pledged some 1.2 billion dollars to Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001, will consider further funds for refugees or disarmament, chief government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura said.