TOKYO, Nov 8 (Reuters) US Defense Secretary Robert Gates faced the delicate task today of trying to encourage military cooperation in talks with Japanese leaders while avoiding domestic controversy over a refuelling mission.
US officials said that pressing Japan to restart its Indian Ocean mission in support of US-led operations in Afghanistan was not the main aim of Gates's visit.
The Japanese mission was halted this month after the government and opposition could not agree to renew it.
But the officials said the subject was certain to come up in talks with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and other ministers in Tokyo today, and Gates has already made clear he hopes Japan will find a way to resume the effort soon.
''We think it's important that all the countries that benefit from the international system ... all take responsibility for helping defend ourselves in this war against terror,'' said a US official traveling with Gates, noting Japan had the world's second-largest economy and was a major trading nation.
''Japan has done a lot and we recognise that. But we look forward to them continuing to do that.'' Over the six years of the mission, Japan has supplied free fuel and water worth about 22 billion yen (195 million dollars) to US and other coalition ships patrolling the Indian Ocean for drug runners, gun smugglers and suspected terrorists.
Fukuda wants to enact new legislation to resume the refueling operations, but opposition Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa has so far refused, arguing it needs a United Nations mandate.
The Democrats and their small allies have vowed to vote against a new bill in parliament's upper house, where they have a majority and can delay bills.
Japanese voters are divided over the mission, with slightly more in favour of extending it than opposed, according to a recent Kyodo news agency poll.
Washington says Japanese ships have supplied about 7 per cent of the fuel to the international coalition in the last few years.
While that figure is a small proportion of the total, the United States argues it is still an important contribution to the war on terrorism declared by President George W Bush after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
US officials said they hoped Gates's visit would help switch the focus away from disputes on individual topics in favour of a broader view of the importance of cooperation between the United States and Japan on security issues.
''One of the reasons why the secretary is here is to bring the centre of the debate back up to the strategic level,'' said another senior US defence official.
''Let's get out of the weeds, we can negotiate those, we'll come to a resolution, but in fact let's restate the fundamental principles of the alliance.'' The officials stressed the visit was planned long before the current controversy over the naval mission.
Gates, who visited China and South Korea earlier this week, was due to meet Fukuda, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura and Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba today afternoon.
He was also scheduled to have lunch with US military personnel, part of a contingent of some 50,000 US troops stationed in Japan.
REUTERS GT BD1040