Abe says planning to visit Middle East in early Jan. – The Mainichi

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday he plans to visit the Middle East early next month as Japan has decided to send Self-Defense Forces personnel to the region to help secure the safe navigation of commercial ships.

The government is making arrangements for him to visit Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to officials. The Middle East supplies crude oil to resource-scarce Japan and stability in the region is critical.

"I'm considering visiting the Middle East at the beginning of next year if conditions permit," Abe said during a TV program recording.

"Ninety percent of our crude oil imports come from the Middle East. If they stop, the Japanese economy and our daily lives will be severely impacted," Abe said.

The government plans to send a destroyer and P-3C patrol planes to the region for the purpose of intelligence gathering as tensions remain high in the Middle East over a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the United States.

But Japan will not join a U.S.-led maritime security initiative near the Strait of Hormuz, a key waterway for transporting oil, for fear of hurting Tokyo's good relations with Tehran.

The SDF will instead operate off Oman and Yemen -- the Gulf of Oman, the northern part of the Arabian Sea, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

"Japan aims to make its own unique contributions to safe navigation and regional stability," Abe said.

Before the prime minister, Defense Minister Taro Kono will visit Djibouti and Oman during his four-day Mideast trip from Friday. The P-3C patrol planes engaged in anti-piracy activities based in Djibouti and Oman will serve as a refueling base for the SDF destroyer.

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Abe says planning to visit Middle East in early Jan. - The Mainichi

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