Japan will terminate its refuelling operations in support of US activities in Afghanistan, after the legal basis for the mission expires in January, Toshimi Kitazawa, defence minister, said on Tuesday.

“We will calmly withdraw (our ships) when the law expires next January,” said Mr Kitazawa.

While the new defence minister said Tokyo was not considering resuming the refueling mission, Hirofumi Hirano, chief cabinet secretary, suggested that a final decision had not been made.

However, Mr Kitazawa’s comments follow similar remarks by Katsuya Okada, foreign minister, who said in Pakistan over the weekend that it would be difficult for the government to submit a new bill to extend the refueling mission beyond January 15, when the current law which provides the legal basis for the operations expires.

The move not to renew the anti-terrorism law brings an end to a controversial mission, which began in 2001 following the US invasion of Afghanistan. It highlights the new Japanese government’s more assertive stance on foreign relations.

The decision also comes as Barack Obama, the US president, prepares to visit Japan next month prior to attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Singapore.

While emphasizing the importance of the US-Japan alliance, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has stated his desire to put the relationship on a more equal footing. As such, the new administration has indicated its desire to shift its contribution in Afghanistan to efforts to rebuild the Afghan economy.

“I don’t think providing soldiers is the only way (of combating the Taliban),” Mr Okada said last week.

“There are many people who join the Taliban for their livelihoods. In order to separate them from the Taliban it is very effective to guarantee their income, to ensure that they can gain skills to support their families,” he added.

The new government has also made clear its opposition to the plan to relocate a US military base on the southern island of Okinawa, which was agreed between Washington and the previous Japanese government.

Mr Okada said recently that the new Democratic party-led government intended to present an alternative proposal for the relocation of Futenma, saying the current plan was “unacceptable.” Mr Kitagawa yesterday said it was unlikely that the two governments would resolve their differences before Mr Obama’s visit next month.

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