Japan’s Political Opposition Suspends Refueling Missions
BY WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — A Pakistani destroyer took on fuel from a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) tanker Oct. 29, the final refueling of a mission that began in 2001.
Political opposition in Japan’s legislature allowed the country’s Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law to expire Nov. 1, ending — at least for now — the Indian Ocean missions that had brought fuel and water to warships supporting the U.S.-sponsored Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
The law had been reapproved by the Diet several times, but the recent July election placed the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which opposes the missions, into a majority in the legislature’s upper house.
The legislature may eventually allow the refueling missions to continue, but Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba warned that restarting them could take as long as a year.
Pentagon officials played down the effect on Afghanistan operations, saying they appreciate the Japanese effort and hope it will continue, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said at an Oct. 30 Pentagon news conference.
“But if they ultimately choose not to, we will certainly come up with alternative means of making sure that our men and women have the fuel they need to go about their missions,” Morrell said.
But some observers called the refueling effort “very useful to the United States and its coalition partners,” said James Auer, director of the Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies. “If Japan ends the mission, the recipient countries will be disappointed. Japan is one of the few navies in the world capable of carrying out the mission.”
Morrell spoke several hours after Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa failed to agree to an extension of refueling missions. Fukuda, who took the helm on Sept. 25, had vowed the bill would pass.
DPJ leaders say the Afghanistan-support efforts violate Japan’s pacifist constitution.
They also say the MDSF may be secretly supporting operations in Iraq, pointing to the February 2003 transfer of 800,000 gallons of diesel fuel to a U.S. Navy oiler headed for Iraq. The Japanese military admitted the error after a pacifist group, Peace Depot, recently discovered the misuse.
“The prime minister is now on the hook for something that didn’t happen on his watch,” said Peter Woolley, author of “Geography and Japan’s Strategic Choices.” “He finds himself in the awkward position of condemning the misreporting of MSDF activities in the Indian Ocean and advocating continuing those activities.”
The LDP may be able to reauthorize the missions by pushing a bill through the lower house with a two-thirds majority, but that will likely take several months, said Yoichiro Sato of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu.
At least one Western observer said Fukuda may not have been as eager to continue the refueling missions as he claimed.
“I think the U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer miscalculated by so publicly trying to pressure Japan and Ozawa to renew the Indian Ocean mission, and I think Japanese policy-makers, probably including Fukuda himself, resent this pressure and also have suspicions that the U.S. has not been fully ready to reveal exactly what happened to Japanese fuel oil,” said U.K.-based Christopher Hughes, author of “Japan’s Re-emergence as a ‘Normal’ Military Power.”
“I also think Fukuda in general is somewhat skeptical about the war on terror and might actually like to see some pullback of Japanese efforts in this regard,” he said. “However, at the same time, Fukuda does want to maintain close ties with the U.S.”