National / Politics

Abe to visit Middle East as originally planned despite earlier media reports of cancellation

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Defying media speculation and with tensions still high in the Middle East, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman on a five-day trip starting Saturday as originally scheduled, government officials announced Friday.

The announcement came despite Wednesday media reports, including a report in The Japan Times, that quoted government sources as saying Abe would cancel the trip in the wake of the U.S. assassination of top Iranian commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani and ensuing missile attacks by Iran on two bases in Iraq hosting U.S. troops.

Abe apparently has decided to stick to his original plan after U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a speech regarding Iran on Wednesday in Washington that has reduced fear of full-scale war with Iran, at least for now. In the speech, Trump revealed the U.S. will impose additional economic sanctions but will not strike back at Iran for the time being.

During a news conference Friday in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga revealed Abe will go to the Middle Eastern states as originally scheduled.

Abe will meet top leaders of the three countries to explore ways “to stabilize regional situations and ask for cooperation to ensure stable energy supplies and the safe navigation of ships,” Suga said.

He declined to comment on how Abe reached the decision to stick with his original plan for the trip.

Later on Friday, Tokyo issued an order for the Maritime Self-Defense Force to dispatch its 4,650-ton Takanami destroyer and two P-3C anti-submarine patrol airplanes on an “intelligence-gathering” mission on the sea off Oman and Yemen.

Operational areas do not include those around the Strait of Hormuz, which is located next to Iran.

Abe will explain the details of the MSDF dispatch plan when he meets the top leaders of the three countries, Suga also said.

Meanwhile, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official admitted that tension in the region remains high.

The official pointed out unidentified armed groups, which Washington has claimed were proxy forces controlled by Tehran, have staged a number of attacks on U.S.-related targets in the Middle East over recent months.

“We don’t know what exactly has happened (in the attacks). Such situations may still continue,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“So we need to keep watching the situations carefully,” the official said.

The senior official also said Abe probably decided to stick to the original trip plan after hearing what Trump said in Wednesday’s speech.

“I think the prime minister was thinking of making a decision after listening to that statement,” the official said.

It has also become clear that Iran’s missile attacks on the Iraqi bases were “rather controlled ones,” the official also pointed out.

Those self-restraints by both Tehran and Washington apparently helped defuse the military crisis in the Middle East for now.

But it is also true that issues involving Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. troops stationed in Iraq “have become more difficult to deal with,” the official also pointed out.

Japan relies heavily on oil imports from the Middle East and has maintained a good relationship with most of the countries in the region, including Iran.At the same time, the U.S. is Japan’s main military ally and the reason why Tokyo has been engaging in a balancing act between Tehran and Washington ever since Trump unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran last year, sharply raising tensions in the Middle East.

Last month, Tokyo officially adopted the controversial MSDF dispatch plan after Washington pressured Tokyo to join the U.S.-led coalition force to patrol around the Strait of Hormuz.

Japan, however, has emphasized the MSDF’s unit will be “independent,” although it may provide intelligence it gathered to the U.S.-led patrol force in the Persian Gulf.

The P-3C planes are set to depart Japan on Saturday and start patrolling later this month. Takanami, which can carry a helicopter and is equipped with a 127-mm gun and a vertical missile launching system, will leave Japan in early February and start its mission by the end of that month.

The dispatch plan has proven to be controversial in the Diet, as opposition lawmakers have called for its cancellation, citing the military tension in the region.

Any overseas dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces is controversial given the war-renouncing postwar Constitution, which strictly limits SDF missions to those for self-defense.

Japanese officials have stressed that Tokyo has communicated well with both Tehran and Washington and both gave a green light to the dispatch.

On Thursday evening, Defense Minister Taro Kono spoke by phone with his Iranian counterpart, Amir Hatami, to explain the plan.

Hatami didn’t respond negatively to the plan during the conversation, according to Kono, who spoke to reporters at the Defense Ministry.

During the talks, Kono also called for Iran’s cooperation to ensure the safety of Japan-related ships navigating through the Strait of Hormuz.

“I believe we can secure cooperation and assistance from Iran,” Kono said.

The intelligence-gathering unit will be sent on an “investigation and research” mission and legally would not be allowed to use weapons to defend other ships, including tankers carrying crude oil bound for Japan.

In an emergency, its mission can transition to maritime policing operations, Japanese officials said, but even then it would still be allowed to defend only Japanese-flagged ships. Most crude oil shipments bound for Japan are carried on foreign-flagged tankers.