Abe trumpets Iraq support ahead of US visitTOKYO - In a bid to demonstrate its firm commitment to reconstruction efforts in Iraq, Japan recently decided to extend its air force unit's deployment for two years and invited many Iraqi leaders, including the prime minister, from the war-ravaged country to visit.
These recent steps by Tokyo come ahead of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's first visit to Washington for talks with President George W Bush since taking office last September. Abe is to make the visit on April 26-27. Iraq and North Korea are expected to top the agenda at talks between the two leaders.
To be sure, stability in Iraq - and the Middle East as a whole - would be in Japan's interests, as the world's second-biggest economy imports the huge bulk of its oil from the volatile region. And resource-hungry Japan makes no secret of its strong appetite for a decent slice of the oil pie in oil-rich Iraq.
But it is common knowledge that Japan felt the necessity to commit troops and aid for the sake of its alliance with the United States, although Japanese officials shy away from openly acknowledging this. In fact, the Japanese government, in defiance of strong domestic criticism, sent troops to Iraq on a reconstruction mission after the US invasion to maintain the solid Japan-US security alliance.
Japan has been one of the staunchest supporters of the US, its most important ally, in the war in Iraq. Under a special law enacted in the summer of 2003, Japan sent Ground Self-Defense Force (SDF) troops on a reconstruction mission to southern Iraq. Although Japan withdrew its ground troops from Iraq last summer, its airmen are still flying supplies and personnel between Kuwait and Iraq.
The air force began airlifts from its base in Kuwait to select airports in Iraq in early 2004 using C-130 transport aircraft, initially to support Japan's Ground SDF troops in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah. After the army's withdrawal from Iraq last July, the air force expanded the airlifts to cover airports in Baghdad and Irbil.
The 2003 law, which authorizes the deployment of Japanese troops for reconstruction aid in Iraq, was to expire this summer. A government bill to enable a two-year extension has been submitted to the Diet (parliament). Under a separate special law enacted in 2001, Japan also has dispatched Maritime SDF vessels to the Indian Ocean to refuel US and other coalition ships as part of efforts to assist anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan.
Although some within the Abe government proposed only a one-year extension of the mission for Iraqi reconstruction in consideration of mounting domestic and international criticism of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, the two-year extension eventually prevailed on the ground that setting such an earlier time frame for a pullout could have negative effects on Japan-US relations.
The Democratic Party of Japan objected to a two-year extension of the air force mission at a time when the Bush administration is facing mounting pressure from Congress, which is now in the hands of Democrats, for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. But with Abe's Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition in control of both houses of the Diet, the bill to revise the 2003 special law is expected to be enacted before the current session ends in mid-June.
Abe will also be able to tell President Bush of progress being made on the realignment of US bases and forces on Japanese soil. An agreement was reached last May aimed at reducing strains on Japanese communities that host bases while maintaining the US presence in Japan. The pact will further cement the bonds between the close allies through increased integration of their military operations and pave the way for Tokyo's greater involvement in US-led operations, not only in Asia but globally.
The Abe government recently submitted to the Diet a bill aimed at promoting the realignment agreement. The bill, if enacted, will provide billions of yen a year in subsidies to local governments, although provision of subsidies will be linked to their cooperation and actual progress in implementing the realignment projects. The bill is expected to be enacted as early as this month. The proposed law would expire in March 2017. Many local governments remain reluctant to host new US military facilities or drills under the realignment agreement, and some have expressed outright opposition.
The realignment will be high on the agenda at the "two plus two" meeting of Japanese and US foreign and defense chiefs, scheduled for May 1 in Washington. The meeting, originally expected in January, had been delayed partly by the fuss created by Japanese Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma's remarks that embarrassed Washington. Kyuma said in January that the US should "stop being so bossy" about the issue of realigning US bases on Japanese soil and also described the US invasion of Iraq as a "mistake".
After visiting the US, Abe is to tour five Middle East nations - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Egypt - before returning to Tokyo on May 3. In Kuwait, Abe plans to visit the airmen deployed there for the airlift mission in Iraq.
Topping the agenda at his talks with Middle East leaders will be Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran, as well as bilateral economic cooperation, including in the oil sector.
Before leaving for Washington, Abe met with his visiting Iraqi counterpart, Nuri al-Maliki, at his official residence in Tokyo on Monday and promised to continue to support reconstruction efforts in the war-torn country. Maliki expressed his gratitude for Japan's support, and the two leaders agreed to build a 'long-term strategic partnership' to strengthen political and economic ties.
The Japanese and Iraqi leaders agreed on the provision of a maximum of 57.7 billion yen (US$510 million) in new yen loans to support waterworks projects in Basra and reconstruction of power supplies in Kurdish areas. The Iraqi premier said that while security in some areas remains a problem, he hopes for the early resumption of investments by Japanese businesses in the safer areas.
There have been other meetings between Iraqi and Japanese leaders. Last month, Japan invited Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi to Tokyo. Separately, a group of 13 Iraqi parliamentary members and other influential figures, led by the minister in charge of national reconciliation, was also invited to Tokyo for a seminar on ways to promote reconciliation among Iraqi people.
Japan has also taken a high profile in Iraq's reconstruction. Tokyo hopes its generous aid pledges - $5 billion in total, with $1.5 billion in grants and the remaining $3.5 billion in soft loans - will be rewarded with access to Iraq's extensive oil reserves.
Japan's aid is the largest by any single nation except the US. The $1.5 billion portion has already been disbursed, and the $3.5 billion soft loans are to be fully allocated by the end of this year, with the focus likely to be on energy-sector developments. Japan has written off about $6 billion, or 80%, of the $7.6 billion debts owed to it by Iraq.
During his upcoming Middle East tour, Prime Minister Abe will be accompanied by some 100 Japanese business leaders, including Canon Inc chairman Fujio Mitarai, who concurrently serves as chairman of the Japan Business Federation, the nation's most powerful business lobby, and top executives from energy-related firms and trading houses.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected]