Japan’s Defense Ministry ordered home its naval ships from the Indian Ocean on Thursday, ending for now a six-year mission in support of the war in Afghanistan that raised the nation’s military presence overseas but has recently drawn increasing criticism domestically.
A destroyer and supply ship that had been refueling warships for the United States and other nations were recalled at 3 p.m. as a special law authorizing the mission was due to expire at midnight. The government of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda was unable to renew the law immediately because of opposition from the Democratic Party, which seized control of Parliament’s upper house in a landslide election victory during the summer.
The United States had urged Japan to extend the refueling mission which, while largely symbolic, provided important diplomatic support for Washington. The mission, based on a “special anti-terrorism law,” constituted pacifist Japan’s main contribution to the Bush administration’s global campaign against terrorism.
Fukuda’s government has introduced a new refueling bill in Parliament and could yet use its control of the lower house to override the opposition’s objections and begin the mission again.
“To eradicate terrorism in solidarity with the international community, our country must fulfill its responsibility by continuing the refueling mission by all means,” Fukuda said in a statement.
But even if the government succeeded with that strategy — a potentially unpopular one, given that the public is divided over the naval deployment — the refueling mission would not resume for several months.
The law’s expiration underscored the current political deadlock in Japan. The governing Liberal Democratic Party suffered a devastating loss over the summer because of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s mishandling of bread-and-butter issues. His subsequent abrupt resignation on Sept. 12 created a political vacuum that made it impossible to renew the special law before the Nov. 1 deadline.
Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, has vowed to use his grip on the upper house to force Fukuda to dissolve the lower house and call a general election. Fukuda does not have to call a general election for two more years, but the opposition can effectively shut down the government by blocking this Afghanistan bill and others.
Analysts predict that Fukuda may call a general election in the spring after passing the next budget, which needs only the more powerful lower house’s endorsement.
While the refueling mission has become tied up in electoral politics, the opposition’s objections also reflect a deeper disagreement over Japan’s foreign policy. This time the debate has not been over whether Japan should participate in overseas missions, but how.
Ozawa, who has long advocated dispatching Japanese troops overseas in U.N.-led missions, has argued that Japan should not unilaterally back the United States.