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Afghanistan: Abe Resignation Throws Japan's Mission Into Uncertainty

September 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) --Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced he is to resign after a difficult year in office. The surprise announcement today came after a series of political scandals and a defeat for Abe's party in July's elections to the upper house of parliament.

But the final straw appears to have been the deadlock over Japan's controversial naval mission, which for six years has been providing fuel support for coalition forces in Afghanistan. The legislation allowing the Indian Ocean mission expires on November 1, and Abe had staked his job on parliament agreeing to extend it. RFE/RL's Kathleen Moore spoke to Robert Ward, a Japan expert with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, about the ramifications for Japan's Afghan mission.

RFE/RL: What is the Japanese naval mission and what is up for renewal?

Robert Ward: They provide fuel and water for the coalition operation in Afghanistan. Basically this legislation expires in November and they need to renew it.

Clearly the U.S. government is desperate that they do that but because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party [LDP] did so badly in the recent upper-house elections and lost to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ], whether this will be able to be renewed or not looks quite uncertain because the DPJ is adamant it will oppose the bill when it goes before parliament in November.

RFE/RL: Polls show Japanese public opinion also quite divided on the mission. Why is it so controversial?

Ward: It goes back to the perennial discussion in Japan on the role of Japan's military outside Japan, whether it should be purely defensive or whether it should have a more active role abroad. Junichiro Koizumi, the previous prime minister, was quite clear he wanted Japan's military to be more active abroad.

Because it's a divisive issue, it's very difficult for politicians to get support across the board, there are a lot of people out there who don't like the Japan's involvement in this Afghanistan operation.

RFE/RL: Abe had threatened to resign if parliament did not support the mission's extension. But in the end he announced his resignation before the vote. Was this more to do with domestic issues, the recent election losses and so on, or with this foreign-policy issue?

Ward: I think for him there are a number of issues. One was the sheer difficulty of getting this through in the face of almost certain opposition from the DPJ, but more deeply it reflected his own increasingly untenable position in parliament. His cabinet decisions have been questioned, there have been a huge number of resignations from the cabinet on corruption charges and [other scandals]. So everything came together for Mr. Abe to mean he couldn't really go on himself.

RFE/RL: What does it mean now for the Afghan mission? Abe said a new prime minister would be better-placed to resolve the deadlock. Do you think that's the case?

Ward: No, I think the DPJ is now on a roll, it knows this is an issue it can really force the government into a difficult position on. They want an early election, they're going to use this issue to force an early general election.

[As regards] his successor, there are a huge number of questions if anyone actually want to lead the party into this difficult issue, he'll find it very difficult to get it through, So it's set up for a bloody battle between the opposition and the government in November, without much likelihood of a resolution in the way the Americans might like.

RFE/RL: What about his potential successors -- are their views on the mission the same as Abe's?

Ward: The LDP government is a broad church and people have lots of different views. One of the names being pushed at the moment is Taro Aso, who used to be foreign affairs minister. If he is chosen, and he is one of the front-runners -- though if he wants the job or not that's another matter -- but if he's chosen he'll pursue relatively the same policy as Mr. Abe has. But because it's such a poisoned chalice it's too early to say with any certainty what a successor might do. But Mr. Aso is most likely to follow Mr. Abe's line.

RFE/RL: But the LDP still controls the lower house and could overrule any upper-house decision not to extend the mission?

Ward: They could do that, but in terms of political and moral authority it would be very difficult for them to do that. So this is a really major issue for Japan.

Meaning the mission is under threat?

Ward: Hugely, and that's why the Americans have been so worried about it, trying to get meetings with the opposition leader, Ichiro Ozawa, trying to corral him into supporting this extension, but it does look very uncertain.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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