US Defense Sec Gates treads fine line in Japan

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TOKYO, Nov 8 (Reuters) US Defense Secretary Robert Gates today urged Japan to restart a naval mission in support of US-led operations in Afghanistan that has been stalled by a domestic political controversy.

The Japanese mission was halted this month after government and opposition failed to agree to renew it.

US officials had said that the mission was not the main focus of Gates' trip, but that the subject was certain to come up in talks with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and other ministers in Tokyo today. Gates had already made clear he hoped Japan would 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 travelling with Gates.

''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 195 million dollars to US and other coalition ships patrolling the Indian Ocean for drug runners, gun smugglers and suspected terrorists.

Fukuda wants to pass new legislation to resume the refuelling operations, but opposition Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa has so far refused, arguing it needs a United Nations mandate.

''It is regrettable that the mission had to be suspended but we will do our best to resume it,'' Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura told reporters after meeting Gates.

DOMESTIC DIVISIONS Japanese voters are divided over the mission. 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.

Faced with that obstacle, parties in the ruling coalition agreed today to extend the current session of parliament, set to end on November 10, until December 15.

Japanese ships have supplied about 7 per cent of the fuel to the US-led coalition in the past few years, Washington says.

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 attacks.

US officials said they hoped Gates' 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.'' Gates, who visited China and South Korea earlier this week, had lunch with US military personnel, part of a contingent of some 50,000 US troops stationed in Japan.

REUTERS MS RN1540

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