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Japan's Mideast Balancing Act

Japan's presence is limited merely to supporting U.S. efforts in Iraq, and the country actually withdrew its 600 troops from Iraq's southern city of Samawa last year amid growing concerns among Tokyo's lawmakers that the war was turning for the worse. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Shihoko Goto
UPI Senior Correspondent
Washington DC (UPI) May 01, 2007
The Middle East is no longer just about oil for Japan. Granted, the race continues to intensify between Japan, China and India to woo petroleum-rich nations in order to secure more natural resources from the region. Indeed, the leaders of all three countries have been going out of their way over the past few years to establish stronger relations with Arab states, most recently with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paying homage to the region this week.

Moreover, halfway through his five-nation tour of the Middle East, Abe has already secured agreements with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to develop oil fields jointly or otherwise to secure a steady stream of oil to Japan.

Yet at the same time, on his first tour of the region since he became premier last September, Abe has gone out of his way to rally for Japan's military presence in the region. But while efforts to have greater stakes in natural resources have been popular amongst Japanese voters -- who largely agree that the strategy is in Japan's national interest -- and Arab nations have welcomed Japan's investments within their own borders, Abe's public support for Japanese troops in the Middle East has had mixed reviews.

To be sure, Japan's presence is limited merely to supporting U.S. efforts in Iraq, and the country actually withdrew its 600 troops from Iraq's southern city of Samawa last year amid growing concerns among Tokyo's lawmakers that the war was turning for the worse. Nevertheless, Japan continues to support the U.S. military by keeping an air defense force based in Kuwait that flies out supplies and humanitarian aid to Iraq. And Abe went out of his way Tuesday to meet with the Kuwait-based troops in an effort to appeal to voters back home as well as to the United States.

"Your efforts will keep contributing to Iraq's reconstruction," Abe told the 100-strong troops with the Air Self-Defense Force. "We are receiving words of gratitude not just from the United Nations and the United States, but from many Iraqi people too. You are contributing to Iraqi reconstruction, which will be a shining page in Japan's history. Please keep this in your hearts, and continue with your duties."

The occasion marked the first time a Japanese premier had addressed the country's air defense force stationed overseas since World War II, indicating that Japan is now more eager than ever to have its international military role be acknowledged. And the Japanese media by and large has welcomed Abe's efforts to bring to light what the country's military forces have been doing in the Middle East over the past four years.

That does not mean, however, that Japanese support for U.S. efforts in Iraq has become any stronger. Granted, Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma toned down his opposition to U.S. presence in Iraq last weekend, as he visited the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

Kyuma made headlines in January when he declared that President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq was "wrong." But on Sunday, Kyuma stated, "I highly appraise the U.S. government's enthusiasm and determination to recover security conditions centered on Baghdad, by going as far as increasing its deployment of troops."

Still, the question remains whether Japan can continue to be a staunch U.S. ally over Iraq on the one hand while on the other cultivating strategic ties with Arab states that opposed the U.S. invasion in the first place.

Abe will be in Qatar Tuesday and will travel to Egypt Wednesday to conclude his tour of the region.

Source: United Press International

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Japan Launches Study On Collective Defence
Tokyo (AFP) April 25, 2007
Japan launched a study Wednesday on how it could fight for allies without breaching its pacifist constitution, a controversial move that could boost the country's global role and alliance with the United States.

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