U.S. wants Japan to continue refueling mission in Indian Ocean: Pentagon

by Takehiko Kajita

The United States wants Japan to continue its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in and around Afghanistan, the Defense Department said Wednesday.

''We have greatly benefited from -- as has the world, for that matter -- from Japan's participation in those efforts, and we would very much encourage them to continue those efforts,'' Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters.

The comments came in response to confirmation by the Democratic Party of Japan and two tiny political parties planning to form a coalition government next week that they would end the Maritime Self-Defense Force's refueling mission in January, when the law for the mission expires.

Morrell said the Pentagon's understanding is ''that the new government places a very high value on the U.S.-Japanese alliance'' despite ''a lot of campaign rhetoric.''

''And so while there has clearly been a change in political leadership in Japan, we are hopeful that there will be continuity in the strength of the alliance between our two countries,'' he said.

''And so we look forward to continuing to work with the Japanese government, with the new Japanese government, when it is formed, on security issues,'' the spokesman said.

The refueling mission, which began in December 2001 with the aim of supporting U.S.-led antiterrorism activities, was briefly halted in November 2007 after a temporary law authorizing it expired. The operations resumed after a new law was enacted in January 2008 and were extended to January 2010 after an amendment last December.

The DPJ won 308 seats in the 480-member lower house in the Aug. 30 election but still needs to tie up with the two small parties to retain a majority in the House of Councillors.

''Japan is a great power, one of the world's wealthiest countries. And there is an international responsibility, we believe, for everyone to do their share, as best they can, to contribute to this effort to bring about a more peaceful and secure Afghanistan, to avoid it returning to a country that could launch attacks against Japan, the U.S., any of our friends and allies around the world,'' Morrell said.

He said the Pentagon will, in collaboration with the new Japanese government, try to execute the existing bilateral agreements, including one committing Japan and the United States to follow through on the planned transfer of U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014.

The DPJ has said it will aim to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps' Futemma Air Station outside Okinawa Prefecture, despite a 2006 Japan-U.S. accord on the transfer of the facility within the prefecture.

The State Department cautioned after the DPJ's election victory against the party's stance, saying the United States will not renegotiate the agreed plan.

Transferring Futemma's heliport functions is closely tied to another key element of the agreement -- moving 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.

''There's a difference between campaigning and governing, and we think that when the responsibility of governing comes about, that people will appreciate...the importance of this alliance and the importance of working together on these agreements,'' Morrell said.

(Distributed by Kyodo News on Sept. 9, 2009)