By Eric Talmadge
Saturday, January 12, 2008
TOKYO, Jan. 11 -- Japan's defense minister ordered the navy Friday to resume a U.S.-backed refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, ending a three-month hiatus but deepening divisions between the government and the opposition.
Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba issued the order after Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's ruling coalition forced a bill through parliament to revive the mission. It was suspended in November when the opposition blocked an extension, saying the mission violated Japan's constitution and did not have the backing of the United Nations.
Fukuda said he expects the ships to leave by the end of the month, meaning they could be back in the Indian Ocean in February.
Japan had refueled ships since 2001 in support of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. It supplied 132 million gallons of fuel to coalition warships, including vessels from the United States, Britain and Pakistan, according to the Japanese government.
The United States had lobbied strongly for the redeployment, including authorizing a rare public foray into domestic politics by U.S. Ambassador J. Thomas Schieffer, who met with Japanese lawmakers to urge their support.
On Friday, Schieffer lauded the bill's passage. "Terrorism is the bane of our time," he said in a statement. "Japan has demonstrated its willingness to stand with those who are trying to create a safer, more tolerant world."
Public opinion polls show increasing support for sending troops abroad -- as long as they do not engage in combat. But the opposition accused the government of forcing its will on the people.
Unable to build a consensus, Fukuda's ruling coalition made the rare move of using its two-thirds majority in the lower house to overrule the opposition-controlled upper house, which voted down the mission Thursday. It was the first such override since 1951.
"This is a clear abuse of power," said Yoshito Sengoku, a lawmaker from the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan. "The government will now surely lose the trust of the people."
Under the new orders, Japanese ships will monitor possible terrorist activity at sea and will refuel and resupply allied vessels, but they will not directly be involved in the hostilities in Afghanistan -- a restriction aimed at winning over a public wary of violating the spirit of the post-World War II constitution.
When the mission was halted, only two Japanese ships, a tanker and a destroyer, were in the region. The new mission was also expected to involve only two or three ships at a time.
Officials said the mission, though tightly restricted, symbolizes Japan's commitment to opposing terrorism and its support of the United States, its main ally and trading partner.
"We want to restart this mission as soon as possible," said Ishiba, the defense minister. "We are committed to actively contributing to the fight against terrorism."
Fukuda and other lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have stressed that Japan must fulfill its obligations in the global war and accept a security role commensurate with its economic clout.