Gates calls on Japan to play bigger security role

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TOKYO, Nov 9 (Reuters) US Defense Secretary Robert Gates today called on Japan to assume a more prominent role in global security -- even as Tokyo struggled to resume a stalled naval mission in support of US-led operations in Afghanistan.

Gates, visiting Tokyo to conclude an East Asian tour, notedJapan had been accused of ''chequebook diplomacy'' in the 1991 Gulf War when it sent no military forces but helped fund the US-led coalition that forced Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.

He said Japan, whose military is constrained by a pacifist constitution, had nonetheless found ways to contribute to missions in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and encouraged them to do more.

''Japan has the opportunity -- and an obligation -- to take on a role that reflects its political, economic, and military capacity,'' he said in a speech to students and faculty at Tokyo's Sophia University.

''That is why the US strongly supports Japan becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. And that is why we hope and expect Japan will choose to accept more global security responsibilities in the years ahead.'' In talks with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and other top officials yesterday, Gates urged Japan to restart its mission to refuel US and other coalition ships patrolling the Indian Ocean for drug runners, gun smugglers and suspected terrorists.

The naval mission was halted this month after Japanese opposition parties refused to vote in favour of a new enabling law.

Gates said he did not want to get involved in Japan's own debate over whether Article 9 of its pacifist constitution, which renounces war as a means of resolving international disputes and, if taken literally, bans having armed forces, should be revised.

He noted, though, that there was discussion of whether the article -- which has already been stretched to allow Japan to send non-combat troops to Iraq -- should be interpreted more broadly.

Also on Gates' agenda on Friday was a meeting with Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, who said Japan was examining whether it could make funding it provides to support US troops based in the country ''more efficient and rationalised''.

Faced with a tight budget and a bulging public debt, finance ministry officials want to trim Japan's funding for US bases in the country by about 10 billion yen in the fiscal year from April 1, Japanese media have said, from 217.3 billion budgeted for non-obligatory spending in the current year.

''Generally speaking, the finance ministry is strictly examining all the expenditures to reduce fiscal spending,'' Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga told a news conference.

''As for host nation support, our stance is the same and we're going to see if there is room for us to make it more efficient and rationalised,'' Nukaga added.

A senior US defence official travelling with Gates sought to play down the spat over funding.

''It's always a negotiation. They would like to pay less, we would like them to pay more,'' the US official said.

REUTERS AM BD1031

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