Japan ordered its naval ships to withdraw from a refueling mission in support of US-led operations in Afghanistan yesterday as a political deadlock kept the government from meeting a deadline to extend the activities.
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is caught between Washington -- which is pressing for enactment of a new bill to allow Japan's navy to keep providing free fuel for US and other ships patrolling the Indian Ocean -- and a resurgent opposition set on blocking the new legislation before parliament.
The Pentagon said this week that Japan's withdrawal would not affect its patrolling of the Indian Ocean for drug smugglers, gun runners and suspected terrorists.
But US Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer, who has been lobbying hard for Japan to stay the course, has said a permanent halt would send a very bad message to the international community and to terrorists.
"Japan must rejoin the international team to fight terrorism as soon as possible by enacting new legislation," Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told a parliamentary panel debating a new law on the operations.
The naval mission -- now certain to be halted for months if not longer -- is sure to be on the agenda when US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visits Tokyo next week, as well as at a summit between Fukuda and US President George W. Bush this month.
"We will make our utmost effort to enact new legislation promptly so that we can resume our refueling activity as soon as possible," Fukuda said in a statement after the order was given.
Canberra urged Tokyo to reconsider its decision yesterday, saying defeating terrorism was a global responsibility.
"Australia is concerned by the imminent cessation of Japan's refuelling activities in support of coalition operations in Afghanistan," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in a statement.
"Defeating terrorists is one of the highest security challenges the world faces. It is a global challenge and combating terrorism is a collective responsibility," he said.
"Australia looks forward to continuing to work with Japan, not least in the ongoing struggle to defeat terrorists that seek our destruction," he said.
Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba ordered supply ship Tokiwa and an accompanying destroyer to head home after performing the last refueling operation under the current law on Monday. That law expired at midnight last night.
Japan has supplied fuel and water worth about US$190 million over the six years of the mission.
Tokyo is now considering fresh aid to Pakistan as well as to Afghanistan to offset return of its refueling ships.
The naval mission has become the focus of a domestic tug-of-war between Fukuda's ruling bloc and the main opposition Democratic Party, which together with its smaller allies, has vowed to vote against it in part because it lacks a UN mandate.
Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa and Fukuda are set to meet again today to discuss the naval mission as well as a broader political deadlock that could spark an early election for the powerful lower house.