Bill’s passage lets Japan save face

With U.S. strains eased, focus shifts to permanent law

by Kaho Shimizu

Friday’s enactment of a new special law that will let the Maritime Self-Defense Force resume multilateral refueling operations in the Indian Ocean will also allow Japan to save face and avoid jeopardizing its relations with the U.S., analysts said.

“I think the White House is now relieved,” said Satoshi Morimoto, a professor of international development at Takushoku University.

U.S. officials were becoming irritated with the time it was taking Tokyo to pass the crucial piece of legislation, after Japan was forced to withdraw the MSDF ships in November, ending six years of support for antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan.

In the U.S., the move could give a boost to the Republican Party’s presidential hopes at a time when President George W. Bush is facing heavy criticism for the war in Iraq, Morimoto said.

“For the Republican Party, which has pushed for the war on terrorism, Japan’s return to the antiterrorism coalition will be significant because it means the United States is regaining support from its ally,” he said.

The Bush administration quickly hailed the law’s enactment.

“The U.S. appreciates the fact that the Japanese government has taken this important step in support of the international community’s efforts to create a stable and democratic Afghanistan,” U.S. Ambassador J. Thomas Schieffer said in the statement Friday afternoon.

The MSDF refueling mission has been suspended since Nov. 1, when the previous special law on antiterrorism cooperation expired. Since then, the contentious mission has drawn criticism at home over charges the law was unconstitutional and allegations that some of the fuel provided to U.S. warships might in fact have been diverted for use in the war in Iraq.

Japan plans to exchange notes with countries that receive fuel from the MSDF to make sure it will not be used for purposes other than the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom-Maritime Interdiction Operation in Afghanistan. But the U.S. is vehemently opposed to this proposal, Foreign Ministry officials said.

The government had been heavily emphasizing the mission as crucial to diplomacy. Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba told the Upper House panel on foreign affairs Thursday that Japan’s withdrawal from the Indian Ocean cut the efficiency of Pakistani naval operations by about 40 percent and affected overall maritime operations in the area.

University of Tokyo professor Shinichi Kitaoka rebutted that claim and said the MSDF operation was limited in scope and that its significance was rather symbolic.

Still, the international community would have been disappointed if Japan had been unable to make such a basic contribution, Kitaoka said.

Although the hardball legislative victory will give Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda a brief respite, it will only be valid for a year, which means the ruling coalition will face yet another harsh debate unless it can draft permanent legislation for dispatching the Self-Defense Forces overseas for multinational operations.

Speaking to reporters Friday evening, Fukuda reiterated that Japan needs such a permanent law.

“If we keep establishing laws whenever something occurs, it takes too much time and we cannot take quick measures,” the prime minister said. “I think it would be good if we had a permanent law.”

Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura also said the same day the government is ready to discuss a permanent law with the Democratic Party of Japan, the leading opposition force, and acknowledged its support will be essential.

But Morimoto of Takushoku University said it is too early to discuss a permanent law, given the chances of a widely expected Lower House election ushering in a change in government.

“If there is a general election (in the Lower House), the current government will no longer exist, so you have to see what kind of government Japan will have in the near future,” he said, adding that such discussion could also be affected by the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November.