TOKYO — Japan will in January end its Indian Ocean naval refuelling mission that supports the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan, the defence minister said Tuesday.
"Japan will withdraw in an orderly way, based on the law" when legislation authorising the mission expires, said Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, confirming what the government has repeatedly signalled.
Kitazawa also said Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's government, which took power last month, ending a half century of nearly uninterrupted conservative rule, has so far taken no action for a fresh bill to relaunch the mission.
The minister added that Japan was considering other forms of support for Afghanistan, saying: "We want to firmly discuss what international contribution we can offer if we have to do so."
Kitazawa made the remarks a day after Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada also said in Pakistan that it would be "difficult in reality" for the government to submit to parliament a bill to continue the mission.
Hatoyama has proposed new, non-military support for Afghanistan such as job training for former Taliban soldiers as a possible alternative to the refuelling mission.
The Indian Ocean mission -- which began in December 2001 and was periodically renewed by Japan's previous, conservative government -- provides the US-led coalition with fuel and other logistical support.
Hatoyama's centre-left government is preparing details of its plans for helping Afghanistan, ahead of US President Barack Obama's visit to Japan on November 12 and 13 as part of an Asian tour.
Obama has invested much political capital in the promise to root out Islamic extremists from Afghanistan and is weighing a request from his own military to send more US troops there.
While in opposition, Hatoyama's Democratic Party of Japan briefly forced a halt to the mission through parliamentary manoeuvres, arguing that Japan -- officially pacifist since World War II -- should not abet "American wars."
The defence minister also said that Tokyo does not expect to reach a breakthrough with Washington over differences regarding the planned relocation of a major US airbase before Obama's visit.
"We will still be very far from resolving everything and from reaching an agreement by the time the US president visits here," Kitazawa said. "We are continuing to review what was agreed by previous administrations."
Hatoyama has signalled he will review a 2006 accord between the former conservative government and Washington on relocating the Marine Corps Futenma Air Base from residential areas in the city of Ginowan, north of the island's capital of Naha.
Under the plan, the base would be closed and a new US base built in a coastal area on Okinawa by 2014, but some islanders want the base moved off the island altogether, a plan backed by Hatoyama's ruling coalition.
The defence minister's comment came days after Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, visited Japan and said he hoped "real progress" would be made before Obama's visit in mid-November.
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