By HIROKO TABUCHI
The Associated Press
Sunday, September 16, 2007; 2:37 AM
TOKYO -- Japan's former foreign minister acknowledged Sunday he faced probable defeat in the race to replace ailing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but said he would stay in the running for the sake of staging an open election.
Taro Aso, a high-profile member of the Abe government, initially emerged as the front-runner in the Sept. 23 ruling party election to replace the prime minister, who abruptly resigned this past week. But support for Aso's sole opponent, Abe critic Yasuo Fukuda, has jumped since several party heavyweights said they would back him.
Fukuda is considered more dovish than Aso, but both candidates pledged Saturday to extend Japan's support for U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan. The new leader of the Liberal Democratic Party is ensured election as prime minister because of the party's majority in parliament's lower house.
Aso, 66, did not contest a talk show moderator's suggestion that Fukuda would most likely win.
"Yes, but if I drop out, the party would be criticized as having chosen a prime minister through back room deals," Aso said on public broadcaster NHK. "I have decided to run if only for the sake of holding an open election."
Both candidates have said Japan cannot afford to drop out of the global war on terrorism and must extend the country's naval mission in support of U.S.-led coalition troops. Since 2001, Japan's navy has been providing fuel for coalition forces in Afghanistan under an anti-terrorism law that has been extended three times.
"Our relationship with the U.S. is the cornerstone of Japan's foreign policy," Fukuda said. "We must explain the importance of this mission very carefully to the public."
The country's main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, is against an extension of the mission, saying coalition operations there have not been properly approved by the U.N.
Abe had staked his job on pushing through a military extension. But he resigned on Wednesday, leaving the future of the mission in limbo and triggering political confusion in the world's second-biggest economy. The premier was later hospitalized for exhaustion and stress-related stomach problems.
Fukuda, 71, also vowed to bolster ties with Japan's Asian neighbors, telling NHK that Japan needs to "strengthen the trend of closer ties" with China and South Korea. In addition, he'll take a softer line with North Korea over its past abduction of Japanese nationals, an argument that has threatened to upset negotiations over the communist country's nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang returned five abductees in 2002, claiming the rest were dead.
Abe had demanded proof no more Japanese were in North Korea, and refused to give aid to the country under a regional disarmament deal earlier this year.
"Recent talks have become deadlocked, as if there is no room for further negotiation," Fukuda said. "We must work to let our opponents know that we are ready to negotiate."
He also pledged to stay away from a contentious war shrine if he becomes prime minister and seek better ties with Asian neighbors.
Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine is vilified by critics because among those honored are Japanese executed for wartime atrocities in Asia. Abe's predecessor Junichiro Koizumi made repeated visits to the shrine, infuriating China and South Korea.
"There is no need to engage in actions resented by our neighbors. We must consider this issue very cautiously," Fukuda said. He suggested that Japan set up a separate memorial to honor its war dead.