TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's main opposition Democratic Party and its allies agreed on Monday to oppose extending support for U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, a move that could sour security ties with the United States.
The decision by the opposition - who won a majority in last week's election for parliament's upper house - also risks deepening divisions within the Democratic Party, a sometimes fractious amalgam of former ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members, ex-socialists and hawkish younger conservatives.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to extend a law enabling Japan's navy to provide fuel and goods for U.S.-led coalition warships in the Indian Ocean as support for operations in Afghanistan.
On Monday, an embattled Abe, who has vowed to stay in his post despite the drubbing at the polls, called for opposition cooperation, but the opposition appeared unmoved.
"To cooperate in America's war is not necessarily the path to take," Democratic Party Secretary-General Yukio Hatoyama told reporters, adding his counterparts in the tiny Social Democratic Party and People's New Party had shared that basic view.
Democratic Party leader Ichio Ozawa had already come out against the extension and, despite calls from his predecessor to rethink that stance, party policy chief Takeaki Matsumoto said switching gears would be tough.
"We aren't saying from the beginning that we won't give approval ... but fundamentally we want to discontinue the law and have them come home," Matsumoto told Reuters in an interview.
The opposition position has sparked concern in Washington, and U.S. ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer is expected to press the case for the mission when he meets Ozawa on Wednesday.
Last week's election deprived the LDP and its junior partner of their majority in the upper house, meaning the Democrats and their allies can reject bills approved by the lower chamber.
Bills rejected by the upper house can be returned to the lower house and enacted by the ruling parties' two-thirds majority, but that is a time-consuming process and the law enabling the Indian Ocean operation expires on Nov. 1.
Ozawa, 65, a former LDP lawmaker who bolted the party in 1993, has long advocated transforming Japan into a "normal country" whose security policy is less constrained by its pacifist constitution.
But he has also urged Japan to adopt its own diplomatic course, even when it differs from that of the United States.
"U.S.-Japan relations don't mean doing everything that the United States wants," policy chief Matsumoto said.
The Democrats' most recent election manifesto also calls for all Japanese troops to be withdrawn from Iraq. Ground troops sent to Iraq by Abe's predecessor completed their non-combat mission last year, but about 200 air force personnel are in Kuwait to airlift supplies to the U.S. military in Iraq.
Picking a fight over the Indian Ocean mission, however, could well worsen divisions within the Democratic Party.
Former party leader Seiji Maehara told Reuters last week that he favoured extending the legislation, although he ruled out the possibility of leaving the party over the issue.
"The party itself is not really sure what the party stands for on security issues," said Richard Samuels, a political science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
"They have been held together by not being the LDP. That may not be enough going forward."
Despite the touch stance, some analysts believe the Democrats are looking for ways to show flexibility, possibly by revising the law to strengthen parliamentary supervision.
"They need to make the point that the LDP has to compromise with them, that the situation is not what it was when the bill was passed," said Gerry Curtis, a Japan expert at New York's Columbia University.
(Additional reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto)
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