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Keiichiro Asao, the Democratic Party of Japan’s presumptive choice for defense minister if the party were to take control of the Japanese government, discusses the party’s vision on security issues at his Tokyo office Wednesday.

Keiichiro Asao, the Democratic Party of Japan’s presumptive choice for defense minister if the party were to take control of the Japanese government, discusses the party’s vision on security issues at his Tokyo office Wednesday. (Hana Kusumoto / S&S)

TOKYO — The Democratic Party of Japan could end refueling for U.S. ships supporting the war in Afghanistan but would consider sending ground troops there under certain conditions, the party’s presumptive choice for defense minister told Stars and Stripes.

Upper house Diet member Keiichiro Asao said in an interview last week that he also would scrutinize spending on moving Okinawa-based Marines to Guam if his party triumphs over the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in August elections — a prospect that Japanese opinion polls indicate is likely to happen.

Moreover, Asao would look to relocate Okinawa’s Marine Corps Air Station Futenma somewhere other than Camp Schwab, Okinawa, where planned construction of a new airstrip is unpopular among residents.

Of those policy changes, action on Afghanistan would take priority, he said.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force has provided 4.9 million gallons of fuel to U.S. and NATO ships from January 2008 through April 30, according to the most recent Defense Ministry figures.

The DPJ has opposed refueling U.S. and NATO ships in the Indian Ocean throughout two legislative sessions.

Some Japanese newspapers have quoted unnamed DPJ officials recently who say the party may reverse course and allow the refueling mission to preserve relations with the United States.

However, Asao said, demand for refueling is decreasing, and Japanese ships would be more useful in combating piracy.

He also said he believes that Japan’s most appropriate role in Afghanistan would be as a peace broker between the Afghan government and more moderate elements of the Taliban.

“The strength we have is that we have no bad track record in Afghanistan,” Asao said. “We haven’t sent any troops to Afghanistan yet; therefore, there’s no collateral damage caused by our self-defense forces.”

Asao, 45, holds a law degree from Tokyo University and a master’s degree in business from Stanford University.

Japan’s post-World War II constitution prevents its forces from participating in combat in foreign wars; however, Japan sent troops to Iraq from 2004 to 2006 to work on construction and humanitarian projects.

If peace talks proved successful in part of Afghanistan, even if other areas were still combat zones, “then we might send ground troops to that area to help build back civil society,” Asao said.

During the recent national Diet legislative session, the party passed a bill in the DPJ-controlled upper house that called for participation in Afghanistan if conditions improved on the ground. The bill died in the Liberal Democratic Party-controlled lower house.

Scrutinizing the move to Guam

On July 11, the LDP-led Japanese government agreed to transfer $336 million to the U.S. to support the 8,000 Marines and their families scheduled to move from Okinawa to Guam in 2014.

Japan has pledged to provide $6.09 billion to the project, which was last estimated to cost $10.7 billion but could cost billions more, according to Government Accountability Office estimates.

Many in the DPJ believe the move is costing Japan too much. Asao cited figures previously quoted by the Ministry of Defense that housing for 3,500 families would cost $700,000 per unit, though that figure could not be confirmed through U.S. data.

“We have to carefully review whether the cost structure is accountable,” Asao said.

When U.S. and Japanese diplomats agreed to the force restructuring roadmap in 2006, they also agreed that Futenma would be closed but that its assets would move to a new location on Okinawa.

That decision proved unpopular with nearby residents and environmentalists because it equated to building a new airport with two runways on Camp Schwab, about an hour north of Futenma.

Asao says he doesn’t expect a move to Camp Schwab anytime soon.

The arrangement may be scuttled completely in the event of a DPJ victory, if U.S. authorities agree to a different transfer location that Asao says he has in mind.

“I do have an idea (for another location), but I shouldn’t mention it,” Asao said. “I haven’t negotiated with the U.S. authorities yet.”

The Futenma runway is in the middle of a large population center. Excessive noise and a 2004 helicopter accident that damaged a nearby college building have led to persistent calls for the base to be returned to the island.

If the U.S. would agree to renegotiate on the location, the DPJ would be willing to agree to a set time frame that would end the move’s persistent delays, Asao said.

The DPJ’s outlook

The Liberal Democratic Party has maintained power for all but 11 months since its founding in 1955, but low approval ratings for Prime Minister Taro Aso and a faltering economy likely will topple it when polls open in August.

A Kyodo News poll last month showed 39.8 percent of voters supporting the DPJ and a record-low 19.8 percent supporting the LDP. Remaining voters chose other parties and independents, or were undecided.

Whether the DPJ can capture a majority in the Diet’s powerful lower house — or at least form a coalition with like-minded parties — will greatly influence the party’s ability to move forward on security and other issues.

Masaaki Gabe, a professor of international relations at the University of the Ryukyus, believes the party wants to distinguish itself quickly from the LDP on defense issues.

However, it’s still unclear what shape that will take, Gabe said. Japanese parties such as the DPJ and LDP don’t have clear-cut ideologies like Democrats and Republicans in the United States.

Some in the DPJ are former socialists, while others are decidedly right-wing.

“Once they win the election and take charge for a while, they will find a realistic middle ground in order to stay in power,” said Toshiyuki Shikata, a Teikyo University professor and a retired Japan Ground Self-Defense Force lieutenant general.

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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.
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