Japan's PM Shinzo Abe says he's 'not thinking' of staying on beyond 2021

Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe gestures while speaking during a New Years gathering for business leaders in Tokyo on Jan 7, 2020. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Shinzo Abe, Japan's longest-serving prime minister, has said he's "not thinking" of staying on as ruling party leader beyond the end of his current term in Sept 2021.

Some in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have called for Abe to continue for a fourth straight term as party president, and thus prime minister, because of his record of six straight election victories.

"I'm really not thinking of that," Abe said in an interview with national broadcaster NHK, recorded before his departure to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman this weekend. "It's not in any corner of my mind."

Abe said that he is also not thinking about calling an election at present, but he wouldn't hesitate to do so when the time is right.

Abe arrived on Saturday (Jan 11) in Saudi Arabia at the start of a Gulf tour during which he hopes to ease tensions after the US killed a top Iranian general. The official Saudi news agency SPA said Abe and his delegation were received by senior officials including Economy Minister Mohammed al-Tuwaijri.

During his five-day tour, Abe will also visit the United Arab Emirates and Oman, where a new ruler was sworn in on Saturday following the death of modern day Oman's founding father Sultan Qaboos.

Abe's Gulf trip had initially been thrown into doubt after Teheran responded to the US' Jan 3 killing of Qassem Soleimani by launching a barrage of missiles at bases hosting American troops in Iraq. The escalation prompted fears of an all-out war.

Those fears have subsided however after US President Donald Trump said Iran appeared to be standing down after targeting the US bases in Iraq.

"To avoid further escalation of the tense situation in the Middle East, (Abe) will exchange opinions with the three countries" he is visiting, Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said ahead of the visit.

"In each of the countries, we plan to ask for cooperation in ensuring a stable energy supply and the safety of vessels," he added.

Japan last month announced it would deploy a military vessel and two patrol planes to the region to protect its shipping interests.

Abe has in recent months tried to carve out a role as mediator between Japan's ally Washington and Teheran, with which Tokyo has longstanding ties.

In December Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Abe in Tokyo after a visit by the Japanese prime minister to Teheran in June.

That visit came amid tensions in the Gulf following a spate of attacks on oil tankers which Washington blamed on Iran, despite denials from Teheran. "I'm deeply concerned about the tensions in the Middle East,"

Abe was quoted saying by NHK earlier this week as he announced details of his Gulf trip that he hoped "to contribute to peace and stability in the region through diplomatic efforts to ease tensions".

Japan was formerly a major buyer of Iranian crude but stopped purchases to comply with US sanctions imposed after Washington in May 2018 unilaterally quit the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Teheran.

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