Japan PM heading to Middle East as planned, warship dispatch ordered


TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will go ahead with a planned trip to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman from the weekend despite heightened tensions in the Middle East, while Tokyo also dispatched a warship and patrol planes to the region.

TV Asahi had reported the trip would be canceled following the U.S. 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 Jan. 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 the trip’s reported cancellation given there was no change in plans to send Japanese Self Defense Forces there, a move they oppose due to the increasingly fraught situation.

The cabinet approved the deployment last month and Defence Minister Taro Kono issued an order on Friday for the warship and two P-3C patrol planes to head to the Middle East to protect ships bringing goods to Japan.

The patrol planes will leave Japan on Saturday and start operations from Jan. 20. The destroyer will depart Japan for the region on Feb. 2 and begin patrols later in the month.

“Ninety percent of our oil travels through those waters and so it’s a lifeline for the Japanese economy,” Kono said at a media briefing.

Kono was required to issue a special order for the deployment of the forces to allow them to use weapons to protect ships in danger.

In May and June 2019, several attacks took place 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 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.

Reporting by Yoshifumi Takemoto, Elaine Lies, Daniel Leussink and Tim Kelly; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Angus MacSwan