Today, the vessels of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces are serving proudly in the U.S.-led Maritime Intercept Operations, along with the navies of seven other nations. Tokyo’s role has been maintaining a “free gas station” in the Indian Ocean for American and other vessels involved in the war against terrorists on the high seas and in Afghanistan. “This mission is part of an international effort,” Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda told reporters recently. “What would the other countries think if Japan were to pull out?”
We will soon find out because the legislative authority for Tokyo’s refueling activities expires this coming Thursday. Moreover, the authorization will not be extended until sometime next year, if ever, so this week Japan will end the mission begun in 2001. Fukuda has submitted a watered-down reauthorization bill—which would not permit Japan to refuel vessels involved in military operations, including those in Afghanistan—in the lower house, controlled by his Liberal Democratic Party, of the Japanese legislature, the Diet. Yet this “antiterrorism” legislation will be blocked by the Democratic Party of Japan, which controls the upper house. The DPJ has vowed to stop the refueling mission on the grounds that the United Nations has not fully authorized coalition operations in Afghanistan, the mission violates Japan’s constitution, and oil supplied to the United States Navy has been used in the Iraqi war.
The Japanese public is closely split on the refueling mission, and the opposition DJP appears to be using the issue to unseat Fukuda’s LDP in the next elections for the lower house. Matters have been complicated by the Defense Ministry’s underreporting of the amount of fuel supplied and unrelated allegations of corruption—this time involving a former official accused of going on more than 200 golf junkets arranged by a contractor. The result is that the world’s second-largest economy, which obtains virtually all of its oil from the Middle East and depends on the United States for the safety of tankers bound for Japanese ports, will drop out of multinational efforts to secure the sea lanes.
The refueling mission is largely symbolic, so its ending will also be full of meaning. The one thing we can say with assurance is that Japan in the Fukuda era is about to take a large step backward as a member of the international community.