Japan's Abe heading to Middle East to urge calm

2 min

Tokyo (AFP)

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 January 11-15 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.

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

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.