TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to cancel his trip to the Middle East amid rising tensions there, a government source said Wednesday, as Tokyo ramped up calls to deescalate the situation through diplomacy after Iran’s attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
Abe was initially planning to visit Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman from Saturday ahead of Japan’s envisaged dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces to the Middle East on an information-gathering mission designed to help secure the safe passage of commercial ships.
The decision comes as Iran launched more than a dozen missiles targeting Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops and coalition personnel, in response to the U.S killing last week of Lt. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian general.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga urged all parties involved to refrain from escalating the situation further and exhaust diplomatic efforts.
“We are deeply worried by growing tensions in the Middle East and a further escalation should be avoided,” Suga said at a press conference.
“We ask all parties involved to exhaust diplomatic efforts to ease the tensions,” the top government spokesman said, adding that Tokyo will also continue with its own diplomacy.
Despite turmoil in the oil-rich Middle East, a critical region for resource-poor Japan, the government will make necessary preparations for the dispatch of an SDF destroyer in early February and patrol planes later this month as scheduled, Suga said.
Japan has been seeking to balance its friendly ties with Iran and its longtime security alliance with the United States. Last year, Abe visited Iran, hoping to take on a mediator role, but tensions between Tehran and Washington remained.
Suga said Japan has been briefed by the United States on the situation through various channels, without elaborating.
Abe instructed ministers to step up information-gathering and analysis and coordinate closely with other countries.
The premier’s trip to the Middle East was aimed at deepening understanding of the dispatch of an SDF destroyer and patrol planes to the region, excluding the Strait of Hormuz near Iran.
The plan is separate from a U.S.-led maritime security initiative near the strait. Still, sending the SDF is a divisive issue in Japan and opposition lawmakers have questioned the decision.
Jun Azumi, the Diet affairs chief of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, urged the government to cancel the planned SDF dispatch to the Middle East, telling reporters it would be “inconceivable” to send troops amid heightened tensions.