Tokyo: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is proceeding as planned with a trip to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman from the weekend, ahead of dispatching a warship and patrol planes to the Middle East and despite heightened tensions in the area.
Media had reported this week the trip would be cancelled as tensions rose in the region after the US killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and a retaliatory missile attack by Iran on U.S. forces in Iraq. But Abe will visit the region as intended from January 11-15, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on Friday.
"Given the rising regional tensions, this trip is taking place to exchange opinions with these three nations as one part of Japanese diplomacy aimed at diffusing the overall situation," Suga said. Suga declined to give details when asked how the decision to keep the trip scheduled had been made other than saying it was based on studying the regional situation.
Opposition politicians had criticized reports of the trip's cancellation given there was no change in plans to send Japan's Self Defence Forces there, a move they oppose due to the increasingly fraught situation in the area.
Japanese Defence Minister Taro Kono was set to issue the deployment order later on Friday for the warship and two P-3C patrol planes for information gathering to protect Japanese ships in the Middle East, from which Japan gets nearly 90% of its crude oil.
Under the plan, which was approved by Japan's cabinet late last month, a special order will be issued by the Japanese defence minister to allow the forces to use weapons to protect ships in danger if there are any emergencies.
In May and June 2019, there were several attacks on international merchant vessels in the region, including the Japanese-owned tanker Kokuka Courageous, which the United States blamed on Iran. Tehran denies the allegations.
The planned operation is set to cover high seas in the Gulf of Oman, the northern Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and Suga said Abe would be explaining the mission to leaders in the countries he visits.
The patrol planes will leave Japan on Jan 11 and start their mission in the area later this month, while the warship is likely to leave Japan early in February, media reported.