TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese officials hope a U.N. resolution to be adopted this month will clear the way to extend a naval mission aiding U.S.-led Afghanistan military operations, pleasing Washington and averting a bruising showdown in parliament as a new government kicks off.
The leader of Japan’s main opposition Democratic Party, Ichiro Ozawa, has opposed extending Japan’s mission to refuel coalition ships in the Indian Ocean, in part because he says the activities lack a direct U.N. imprimatur.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe abruptly announced his resignation last week after a troubled year in office, citing the confrontation over the naval mission as the main reason.
Officials later mentioned health problems, too, and Abe has since been hospitalized for stress and exhaustion while his ruling party rushes to pick his successor in a September 23 poll.
The Democrats and their opposition allies won control of parliament’s upper house in a July election and can delay legislation to extend the mission beyond a November 1 deadline.
A U.N. Security Council resolution to extend the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, a NATO-led peace force, is likely to include “words of appreciation” for the Indian Ocean maritime mission, a diplomatic source said on Wednesday.
“I think it’s likely and it’s going to be a very good boost for the continuation of the operations,” the source said.
Kyodo news agency said the resolution could be adopted later on Wednesday.
“If the resolution is adopted, then the DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) will lose its largest grounds for opposing Japan’s participation,” Kyodo quoted Defense Minister Masahiko Komura as saying.
Both candidates to succeed Abe — frontrunner Yasuo Fukuda, who is a 71-year-old former cabinet minister, and former foreign minister Taro Aso — have stressed the need to continue the naval mission, in which Japan supplies fuel for coalition ships from countries including Pakistan, the only Muslim nation to take part.
Japanese public support for the mission has been growing, but it was unclear whether the U.N. resolution would be enough to change the Democratic Party’s stance.
Democratic Party Secretary-General Yukio Hatoyama termed the notion of referring to the maritime activities in the U.N. resolution “ridiculous”, adding, “What is the government up to?”
Some analysts, though, said a U.N. resolution might provide a way to break the deadlock between the government and the opposition and help Ozawa resolve a split in his own party between hawks who want to extend the mission and doves who don’t.
“Ozawa would win in two ways,” said Steven Reed, a political science professor at Chuo University in Tokyo.
“First, the LDP comes around to the Democratic Party policy, and second, he bridges gaps in his own party.”
Ozawa has called for an early general election but his own party is probably not ready yet for another nationwide campaign.
No lower house election need be held until late 2009.
A parliamentary deadlock could force one sooner, but Japan’s new leader will likely try to put off a vote as long as possible given weak LDP support rates.
Additional reporting by George Nishiyama