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Leader envisions stronger Japan

New constitution urged for defense

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said yesterday that he would push during his term to redraft Japan's pacifist constitution, which strictly limits the nation's right to use military force.

In a wide-ranging interview, Abe, who succeeded the long-serving Junichiro Koizumi in September and has a maximum term limit of six years, outlined a vision for a stronger Japan, and he vowed to fortify the US-Japan Security Alliance during his first official meeting with President Bush at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi this weekend.

A cornerstone of his plan, he said, would be the creation of new constitution to replace the one drafted by the United States during its occupation of Japan after World War II. That constitution, which went into effect in 1947, says that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes." Saying he hoped it would foster a "new spirit" in Japan, Abe asserted that he would seek a new constitution within six years -- referring to the maximum of two consecutive three-year terms allotted to Japanese prime ministers.

Yet, few postwar Japanese leaders have secured such long terms. And given new threats facing Japan -- most notably a nuclear North Korea -- he also suggested that his administration could take the interim step of reinterpreting the existing constitution to more rapidly pave the way for greater defensive capabilities.

Despite the strong Japan-US alliance, Abe noted that it remains 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. The existing rules of engagement for Japanese troops on peacekeeping missions overseas are also severely limited by the constitution. Under current interpretations, for instance, Japanese troops are not permitted to defend themselves -- or US or other allied troops -- unless directly fired upon.

But leading Japanese scholars have said such policy changes may not require the adoption of a new constitution.

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 policy among US allies.

After North Korea tested a nuclear device last month, some critics in China and South Korea have even expressed fear that Japan may seek to develop its own nuclear weapons. But Abe vowed yesterday that Japan would adhere to its nonnuclear principles.

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