Will Japan's new leaders continue to support US in Afghanistan?

Japanese Foreign Minister Okada said that Japan should focus on assistance to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The government has not been clear on whether it will continue its refueling mission.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Soon after Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's cabinet members were inaugurated Wednesday, Japan's new foreign minister Katsuya Okada underscored his country's commitment to the international community.

In his first official pronouncements, Mr. Okada said that the government should focus in its first 100 days on assistance to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A key question surrounding the DPJ has been its commitment to Japanese logistical support for US operations in Afghanistan, such as its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean.

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The new foreign minister said Japan would not "simply" extend that naval mission. Many analysts have suggested that Japan will pull back from the mission early next year.

But Okada added that Japan should make its mark in terms of helping to stabilize the region. DPJ advisers have said that such help could take the form of medical and development aid.

"Under Mr. Okada's leadership, Japan will first promote humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in Afghanistan," says Toshiyuki Shikata, a law professor at Teikyo University and former lieutenant general with the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). "Then, the new government is likely to dispatch SDF troops to a relatively safe area in the country as a noncombat mission," says Mr. Shikata.

Such gestures would sustain the approach of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, whose leaders have in recent years promoted greater Japanese engagement abroad. In addition to its support efforts in the Afghanistan war, Japan had 600 noncombat troops in Iraq for two years.

An expanded support role in Afghanistan could generate stiff opposition from many Japanese, as critics oppose the military involvement as a violation of the nation's war-renouncing Constitution.

But if Japan's Self-Defense Forces were to send troops to Afghanistan, they would operate under UN auspices, something that is more palatable to the Japanese public, says Shikata, adding that "I believe Mr. Okada's active diplomacy will also convince more people."

A year ago, then-Defense Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi also suggested it was time to pay more attention to Afghanistan. At the time, the DPJ was not necessarily averse to such an idea; then-party leader Ichiro Ozawa had already floated the idea that Japan should send SDF troops to the country.

Okada also said the Foreign Ministry should work on issues of the US military presence on the southern island of Okinawa and of global warming.

In a 2001 interview with the Monitor, Okada reiterated that if the DPJ-led government took power, it "would make its own decision, whatever the United States or other countries say. We would present our views and make our point."

Some DPJ leaders have close ties with their counterparts in other Asian countries, and the new government is welcomed by Japan's neighboring countries.

"This time, I don't think we will have to worry about issues regarding the interpretation of the history of Japan's relations with Asia," says Zhu Jianrong, a professor of international relations at Toyo Gakuen University in Nagareyama, east of Tokyo. Japan has frequently been at odds with both China and Korea over interpretations of Japan's representation of its actions World War II. "We can expect the new government to build amicable relations with other Asian countries."

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told Korean and Japanese media he hoped the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo will be rapidly and permanently improved under the DPJ-led government.

The bilateral relationship "has steadily developed over the years, and there is hope it will develop to a higher level at which they completely trust each other," Mr. Lee said.

But Mr. Zhu says that while he does not expect drastic changes in Japan's relations with the US, in the long run, the country is likely to take a more independent course, as DPJ leader have said.

Prime Minister Hatoyama has said he wants to put the US-Japan alliance "on equal footing."

He also spoke with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday, vowing to continue a high-level dialogue. Russia and Japan have yet to formally conclude a peace treaty from World War II because of a territorial dispute over what Japan calls the Northern Territories and Russia refers to as the Southern Kurils. Russia controls the Pacific islands, which stretch between Japan's northern island of Hokkaido and Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula.

Mr. Hatoyama is expected to meet US President Barack Obama, Chinese leader Hu Jintao, and other leaders at the UN General Assembly and the Group of 20 summit meeting in Pittsburgh next week.  

"At first, it is important to forge a trusting relationship with President Obama," says the prime minister.

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