Japan's refueling of U.S. and other vessels in the Indian Ocean is expected to grind to a halt this week, in a political tug of war over Tokyo's role in international security. As VOA Seoul correspondent Kurt Achin reports, Japan's divided legislature is blocking the extension of the operation, which Washington views as a contribution to the global war on terror.
Senior U.S. defense officials have expressed gratitude to Japan on numerous occasions for its refueling of vessels in the Indian Ocean - including U.S. warships deployed in Afghanistan stabilization efforts.
The fate of that mission fell into serious doubt Tuesday, following a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and the leader of his main political opposition, Ichiro Ozawa. Mr. Fukuda backs the mission. Ozawa does not.
Ozawa says he told Mr. Fukuda his party is still against continuing the mission, and that the two leaders did not come to any agreement.
Ozawa's Democratic Party controls the upper house of Japan's parliament. He says Japan's involvement in the mission violates the country's pacifist constitution, which permits Japanese military deployments only in the immediate defense of the nation.
Ozawa says his party would only support an extension of the fueling mission if it were specifically mandated by the United Nations. Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda calls the situation "disappointing."
His deputy press secretary, Tomohiko Taniguchi, says the mission has been an important part of Japan's foreign policy.
"Not only to help the international community to have a unified front against terror, but also to help serve the Japanese national interest," said Taniguchi.
Taniguchi adds that Mr. Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party, which controls the lower house of Japan's parliament, disagrees with Ozawa's view of the refueling mission as involvement in an overseas war.
"The operation that's continued so far in the Indian Ocean has got nothing to do with actual warfare. It's operating in a very much safe zone, a non-combat zone," he said.
Professor Steven Reed, a Japanese public policy specialist at Tokyo's Chuo University, says Japan is undergoing a deep political self-examination - deciding what sort of democracy it wants, and what kind of security role to take in the world. He says now that Mr. Fukuda's party is sharing power with the Democrats, the refueling mission and other issues are matters of open debate.
"It's the first time it's actually been discussed in public. And so, the people don't have settled opinions... it's not clear what will happen once more of this issue is out in the open," he said.
The Japanese refueling mission is all but certain to expire Thursday, unless there is a last minute compromise to extend it.