Japan confirms Abe's trip to Middle East, orders MSDF dispatch to region amid opposition

The Japanese government on Friday confirmed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make a five-day trip to the Middle East from Saturday.

The Japanese government on Friday confirmed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make a five-day trip to the Middle East from Saturday, while also giving orders to dispatch Maritime Self-Defense Forces personnel and hardware to the region to conduct "information-gathering" operations.

During his visit, Abe will hold talks with leaders in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, Chief Cabinet Secretary and Japan's top government spokesperson Yoshihide Suga told a press conference, with confirmation of Abe's trip coming amid abating concerns over an imminent escalation of tensions in the region.

"(Prime Minister) Abe will exchange views with the leaders of the three countries, which play important roles in easing tensions and stabilizing the situation in the region. He plans to seek cooperation on ensuring stable energy supplies and safe navigation," Suga said.

The confirmation of Abe's trip comes following US President Donald Trump's measured response to Iran launching a missile strike on Iraqi bases hosting US troops. Trump said the United States will not respond militarily to the attack, although increased sanctions on Iran.

Iran's missile strike on Wednesday was a reprisal for the United States killing top Iranian commander Lt. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike last week.

Abe, during his trip, will seek to explain and garner support for the dispatch announced Friday of two P-3C patrol planes and a helicopter-carrying destroyer to the Middle East, along with around 260 MSDF personnel, to engage in a one-year survey and research mission.

Despite simmering tensions in the Middle East, Japan will go ahead with its information-gathering and security operations, although they will not be conducted as part of a US-led coalition to carry out maritime security operations in the region.

Tokyo has said it will not join the US-led coalition and will keep its forces away from the Strait of Hormuz near Iran in a bid to maintain positive ties with Iran.

Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono gave the MSDF deployment order Friday, stating that tensions in the region are rising and the safety of Japan-related vessels was paramount to the nation's energy needs.

Japan is the world's fourth-largest oil importer and relies on the Middle East for more than 90 percent of its crude oil imports.

"Tensions in the Middle East are rising and precisely because of that it's necessary for Japan to beef up information-gathering activities for the safety of Japan-related vessels," Kono told a press briefing after issuing the dispatch order.

"To prevent the energy supply to our country from being cut off by any chance, we'll fully prepare for the mission," Kono said, adding the helicopter-carrying destroyer Takanami is set to leave Japan on Feb. 2, while P3-C patrol planes will begin their mission on Jan. 20.

The planned deployment of the MSDF to the Middle East has sparked controversy here, however, with opposition parties calling for the dispatch to be scrapped.

Jun Azumi, the Diet affairs chief of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan has called on the government to abandon the highly divisive and contentious plan, in light of tensions in the region that could still, henceforth, flare up and see the region become a war zone.

Questions have also been raised about the constitutionality of the plan, as Japan's postwar pacifist Supreme Charter states that Japan forever renounces war as a means to settle international disputes and also prohibits Japan from maintaining war potential.

Azumi said the deployment should be cancelled, calling the move preposterous under the current circumstances.

"It would be inconceivable to send troops amid heightened tensions," Azumi said, a sentiment backed by other opposition parties and the public, who have rallied outside the prime minister's office in staunch protest to the constitutionally ambiguous move.

In June a Japanese-owned tanker was attacked near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital global shipping artery, but a month later Japan said it had no plans to deploy members of the MSDF to the Middle East, as there had been a lull in attacks on commercial vessels near the Strait.

But in a volte-face on the matter, the Japanese Cabinet approved the deployment in late December, and will go ahead with the move despite the recent attacks carried out by the United States and Iran and amid continued discord over a 2015 nuclear agreement inked between Iran and a number of global powers, yet no longer supported by the United States.  

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