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Japan's ruling party weighs first offensive weapons since WWII

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waves before leaving Haneda Airport in 2015.

JAPAN NEWS/YOMIURI

By ISABEL REYNOLDS AND YUKI HAGIWARA | Bloomberg (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 29, 2017

Japan should arm itself with long-range offensive weapons, a policy research group in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party said Wednesday, in a break with the cautious defense stance the country has maintained since World War II.

The group, led by former defense minister Itsunori Onodera, urged the government to begin considerations immediately to introduce the capacity to attack a foreign base, according to a document distributed to reporters. The necessary budget should be set aside, the group said, citing a "new level of threat" from North Korea. A broader party panel will look at the proposal Thursday, and it is set to be presented to Abe soon.

"This is an urgent problem, and as a responsible party we have a duty to allay the anxiety of the people of Japan," LDP lawmaker Hiroshi Imazu, who heads the party's defense panel, said at its headquarters in Tokyo.

Hemmed in by a pacifist constitution it adopted after the war, Japan relies heavily on the U.S. "nuclear umbrella" to deter growing regional threats. Successive Japanese administrations since the 1950s have said that the constitution doesn't preclude the right to attack a foreign base if the country is under imminent threat. The government has never obtained the means to carry out such a strike, partly out of concern it would revive memories of its past aggression in the region.

"What we are talking about in the party is not pre-emptive strikes," Takeshi Iwaya, a member of the LDP policy research group, said in an interview on Tuesday. "If there were a saturation attack -- if several missiles were fired at us at the same time -- we wouldn't be able to deal with that using our current missile defense system. So we think we should consider the capacity to strike back and prevent a further attack."

Abe has shifted Japan's security posture since taking office in 2012, removing a ban on weapons exports and re-interpreting the pacifist constitution to allow the defense of allies. Another change to Japan's military stance would probably require a cabinet decision that must be approved by all ministers, including Keiichi Ishii, who hails from Abe's coalition partner. The Buddhist-backed Komeito party is likely to try to limit any long-distance strike capacity.

"Komeito believes in a peaceful country, an exclusively defensive posture and not possessing offensive weapons," Kiyohiko Toyama, a Komeito lawmaker who has been involved in past ruling coalition negotiations over changes to security policy, said in an interview this week. "I'm not saying it won't happen. But it's not simple. It impinges on the Japan-U.S. alliance, so we need to have a dialogue with the U.S."

Obtaining cruise missiles would be one option for Japan, the LDP group said. While proposals that Japan acquire a long-range strike capability have been made several times in the past, North Korea's simultaneous launch of four ballistic missiles earlier this month -- three of which fell into Japan's exclusive economic zone -- has brought a new sense of urgency.

The group also recommended that Japan consider stepping up its capacity to intercept incoming missiles by introducing new technology such as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense -- known as Thaad -- or Aegis Ashore defense systems. It urged the government to consider how to tackle missiles that land within Japan's exclusive economic zone, rather than just its territorial waters, to protect the country's shipping.

Japan already has a two-stage missile defense system, consisting of ship-borne SM-3 interceptors and ground-based PAC-3 missiles. Both are undergoing upgrades.

Concerns over Japan's relations with the Trump administration have also played into the discussions, ahead of a meeting between the two countries' defense and foreign ministers expected next month, Iwaya said. That's even after President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis reaffirmed the U.S.'s commitment to defending Japan.

"America is continuing to demand that NATO countries boost their defense spending to 2 percent" of gross domestic product, Iwaya said. "We imagine that there will be pressure on Japan to make a bit more effort on defense. Considering that the situation is getting a lot worse, we should make an effort without waiting to be told to do so by the U.S."
 

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