By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
TOKYO, Nov. 14 -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday outlined a vision for a stronger Japan and vowed to fortify the U.S.-Japan security alliance during his first official meeting with President Bush in Hanoi this weekend.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post, Abe, who succeeded Junichiro Koizumi in September, also said he would push to redraft Japan's pacifist constitution.
In the current charter, which was drafted by the United States during its occupation of Japan following World War II, Tokyo effectively renounces the use of virtually any form of aggression. Abe, saying he hoped to foster a "new spirit" in Japan, said he would seek a new constitution within six years -- referring to the maximum time a prime minister can serve in office.
Few postwar Japanese leaders have secured such long terms. Given new threats facing Japan -- most notably a nuclear North Korea -- Abe suggested that his administration could take the interim step of reinterpreting the existing constitution to increase defensive capabilities.
Abe noted that it is unclear whether Tokyo is permitted under its own constitution to shoot down a ballistic missile flying over Japanese territory en route to the United States. Rules of engagement for Japanese troops on overseas peacekeeping missions are also severely limited by the constitution. Under current interpretations, for instance, Japanese troops are not permitted to defend themselves -- or U.S. or other allied troops -- unless directly fired upon.
But leading Japanese scholars have said policy changes to address such issues may not require the adoption of a new constitution, and could instead be made through official clarifications issued by the cabinet. While declining to provide a timetable for declaring new security protocols, Abe called for options to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.
"We need to take up each individual example and study whether they . . . infringe upon the constitution," he said.
The Bush administration has backed the notion of a more assertive Japan, viewing Tokyo as an increasingly important partner at a time of dwindling support for the administration's foreign policies among U.S. allies. But the idea has unnerved critics in China and South Korea, where memories of World War II-era atrocities still run deep.
Since North Korea tested a nuclear device last month, some observers have even feared that Japan might seek to develop its own nuclear weapons. Yet most domestic scholars say Japan, the only nation to ever suffer a nuclear attack, is unlikely to ever seriously consider such an option, even if it saw itself as the primary target for North Korean aggression. Abe echoed those sentiments Tuesday, vowing that Japan would adhere to its nonnuclear principles.
Still, some right-wing leaders here, including a key member of Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, have called for a broader public debate on whether Japan should possess nuclear weapons. While Abe said he would move to prevent any "official" debate, he added that he could not stop private citizens from expressing their views.
"For the general public to discuss this matter -- for example, academics, scholars or journalists -- is the freedom of the Japanese people," said Abe, 52. "I am not in a position of restricting that."
Abe, considered hawkish by most analysts here, has taken the global lead in calling for international sanctions against North Korea for conducting a nuclear test and has imposed its own sanctions on the Pyongyang government. On Tuesday, Abe approved a series of new measures banning the export of luxury goods to North Korea, an action aimed directly at the authoritarian elite in Pyongyang who revel in high-end Japanese goods.
During his first six weeks in office, Abe has at times sought to moderate his tone. For instance, while he has backed Koizumi's controversial decision to pay annual homage at a Tokyo shrine honoring the country's military dead, including World War II-era war criminals, Abe has refused to say whether he will continue to make such visits himself.
"Now that he is in office, Abe is trying to hide his beliefs," said Tenzo Okumura, a leading member of the opposition Democratic Party. "As the prime minister of Japan, he has the responsibility to the Japanese people to be clear on his positions, but he has chosen to be ambiguous."
This weekend, Abe will meet with Bush at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi.
The prime minister said he would use the occasion to stress the importance of maintaining a strong alliance with the United States and a firm line on North Korea. Some U.S. Democrats and Republicans have questioned Bush's refusal to hold direct negotiations with the North Koreans. Instead, the United States has agreed to meet them only within the context of six-party talks that also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Japanese officials have favored Bush's approach, which has given Tokyo a greater role in the issue.
When asked whether he felt that policy might change with the new Democrat-controlled Congress, Abe reiterated Japan's desire to maintain the current multilateral format. "I believe that the six-party talks is the place to resolve the North Korean issue," he said.