Will Japan Opt Out of Fueling U.S. Ships for Iraq?

The recent Cabinet shake-up by Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda was, like so much that occurs within Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, strictly “inside baseball.” It all has to do with pleasing the disparate factions of the LDP, with maneuvering and insider politics, and is Fukuda’s way of dealing with an economy now in choppy waters. (The national debt is now likely to hit 778 trillion yen, or $7.2 trillion, by 2009.)

The new line-up in Fukuda’s government could directly impact relations between the U.S. and Japan. And that impact could undo what is possibly the most critical linchpin that binds the two countries: Japan’s refueling of U.S. warships in the Indian Ocean, many of which are headed for Iraq or on the hunt for terrorists.

“Over the past six years, Japanese military tanker ships cruising far from home have pumped 127 million gallons of fuel, free of charge,” reported the Washington Post’s Blaine Harden, “much of it into U.S. warships hunting for terrorists and smugglers.” Harden dubbed the refueling operation a “floating gas station in the Indian Ocean” and “Japan’s principal contribution to the war in Afghanistan.”

Fukuda’s boldest move was naming former Foreign Minister (and his own arch-rival within the LDP) Taro Aso as secretary-general of the LDP. This nothing short of Japan’s equivalent of Barack Obama tapping Hillary Clinton as his vice-presidential running mate.

So what does it mean to this country? Aso’s premier assignment as party boss will be to negotiate with the New Komeito (Clean Government) Party — LDP’s junior partner in the governing coalition — about when to hold national elections between now and when the current Diet (parliament) expires in 2009 and elections must be called. Sources from Tokyo tell me that Komeito — while pro-U.S. and supportive of the refueling — does not want this as an issue in what is very likely to be the biggest threat by an opposition party to the ruling government since World War II. (Since the post-war constitution went into effect, the LDP has run the government for all but nine months when an eight-party coalition ruled in 1993; Komeito, formed in 1967, has been a partner to LDP in governing for many years.)

Stopping the refueling of U.S. warships has been the key plank in the platform of the opposition Democratic Party led by Ichiro Ozawa. Once a political star in the LDP, the wily Ozawa broke with the party in 1993, helped form the coalition of ’93, and was blamed for its collapse after nine months — hence his nickname, “the Destroyer.” In taking over the small Democratic Party in 2007, Ozawa led it to a stunning takeover of the upper house (House of Councillors) in Japan last September and was able to block a number of key proposals of the Fukuda Administration: the extension of the gas tax, the naming of the head of the Central Bank, and, yes, temporarily, the naval fueling in the Indian Ocean.

Were the fueling operation (which cost Japanese taxpayers nearly $190 million) ended, Pakistan has said it would have to withdraw its destroyer from patrolling the region and essentially be out of the coalition against terror.

The 66-year-old Ozawa has signaled his intention to become prime minister if the Democratic Party emerges on top in the next Diet elections, and, according to the Financial Times, “recent polls indicate more voters now favor the opposition than the ruling party.”

A “Prime Minister Ozawa” would inarguably send a tsunami from Tokyo to Washington. The “Destroyer’s” anti-refueling stance notwithstanding, he has already given the cold shoulder to the Bush Adminstration by standing up U.S. Ambassador Tom Schieffer’s repeated requests for an audience. His vision, as stated in his book Blueprint for a New Japan, are to establish a two-party system in Japan (he likens the LDP to the Chinese Communist Party) and predicts it will “collapse and dissolve” once it loses power.

So, the argument goes, why don’t LDP and Komeito simply concede the most potent issue — namely, the refueling controversy — to Ozawa now by not reauthorizing the “floating gas station” when it expires December 1st?

Other Japan-watchers forecast much the same. Pointing out the emphasis the new Cabinet will have on economic issues, Mindy Kotler of the Asia Information Access Project predicted that “the steady withdrawal of Japan from international involvement will continue: no peacekeepers to the Sudan or Afghanistan, no more refueling in the Indian Ocean [italics added]. . .and just about no on anything that takes attention away form domestic concerns.”

Parting Shot: Discussing the upcoming political situation in Tokyo over lunch recently with two well-connected authorities in the area, I was told in no uncertain terms that if Ozawa’s Democratic Party were to replace LDP as the ruling party after the next election, then Ozawa’s prediction of an LDP that would “collapse and dissolve” is accurate; one would see an LDP suddenly out of power split like a giant amoeba and its factions evolve into newer and smaller parties. One faction very likely to rise from the ashes into a full-blown party is that headed by former Prime Minister Juniricho Koizumi, who ruled from 2001-07 and captivated voters’ imagination with his reform policies and love of Elvis Presley music. One could say that, under those circumstances, Elvis had indeed come back.