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Japan's Prime Minister Abe heading to Middle East to urge calm

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has acted as mediator between the US and Iran [Getty]

Date of publication: 10 January, 2020

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's trip to Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia will go ahead despite soaring tensions in the region.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit the Middle East from Saturday, hoping to ease soaring regional tensions after the US killing of a top Iranian general.

The trip had been thrown into doubt after Tehran responded to the attack on Qasem Soleimani by launching a barrage of missiles at bases hosting American troops in Iraq, prompting fears of an all-out war.

But Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Friday that the 11-15 January trip to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman would go ahead, with Abe also seeking to explain Tokyo's decision to deploy a military vessel and two patrol planes to the region to "ensure safety of Japan-related vessels".

With fears of a full-blown conflict receding - despite a passenger plane crash that may have been caused by an Iranian missile - the Japanese leader has decided to proceed with the visit.

"To avoid further escalation of the tense situation in the Middle East, (Abe) will exchange opinions with the three countries," Suga said.

"In each of the countries, we plan to ask for cooperation in ensuring a stable energy supply and the safety of vessels."

Last month, Japan said it would send a destroyer for intelligence activities along with two P-3C patrol aircraft to the Middle East but will not join a US-led coalition in the region.

Read more: Qasem Soleimani killing was 'self-defence', US tells UN

Japan has walked a fine line in balancing its key alliance with Washington and its longstanding relations and interests with Iran.

The decision to not join the US-led coalition protecting Middle East waterways can be seen as an attempt to maintain neutrality in a show of consideration to Iran.

Japan will also stay away from the Strait of Hormuz, where the US-led coalition is operating.

It was formerly a major buyer of Iranian crude but stopped purchases to comply with US sanctions imposed after Washington unilaterally quit the nuclear deal in May 2018.

Abe has in recent months tried to carve out a role as mediator between Japan's US ally and Iran, visiting Tehran and receiving President Hassan Rouhani in Tokyo in December.

Read more: Disaster averted. But can there be peace between Iran and the US?

The Middle East supplies more than 80 percent of Japan's oil needs.

Sending warships to areas of military tension is a highly sensitive issue in Japan because its pacifist post-World War II constitution limits the use of force by the military strictly to self-defense. Abe, however, has gradually expanded Japa's military role in recent years.

In June, a Japanese-operated tanker was attacked in the Gulf of Oman. Washington said Iran was responsible and urged Japan to join the US-led military initiative.

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