Abe shows restraint over security policy

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presents a wreath at Ground Zero, the former site of the World Trade Center, in New York on Wednesday.

JAPAN - During his visit to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used different approaches in his speeches about the nation's security issues.

While he spoke in a restrained tone during his address at the UN meeting, he went into more detail in a speech delivered at a policy research institute.

He did so apparently because he wanted to clarify his administration's attempts to pursue a new direction on security issues to the international community, while showing consideration to New Komeito, the Liberal Democratic Party's coalition partner, which is cautious about such moves, observers said.

Since returning as prime minister in December, Abe has proactively engaged in diplomatic activities and explained why he wants to review the current government interpretation of the nation's right to collective self-defence during meetings with Southeast Asian leaders.

"He has received mostly positive reactions from those leaders," said a source close to Abe.

Based on these reactions, some government officials, when working on the prime minister's speech for the United Nations, expressed the opinion that he could explicitly state the government would review the interpretation of the right to collective self-defence.

But in his UN speech Thursday, Abe simply said, "I will enable Japan, as a proactive contributor to peace, to be even more actively engaged in UN collective security measures, including peacekeeping operations."

In a speech at the Hudson Institute, however, Abe stressed the importance of reviewing the government's current constitutional interpretation of the right to collective self-defence, giving examples of cases in which it would currently be considered unconstitutional.

In one scenario, he explained that if Japanese troops were operating alongside another country's military in a UN peacekeeping operation and the other country's troops came under fire, the Japanese troops would be unable to help.

In another example, Abe envisioned a case on the high seas. He explained that if one of the US ships deployed around Japan came under attack and requested assistance from Japan, it could not provide it.

Given the remarks at the Hudson Institute, the way he spoke at the UN appeared rather restrained.

The difference in tone between the two is believed to have come from Abe's consideration for Komeito. If he explicitly referred to an intended review of the interpretation of the right to collective self-defence at the UN General Assembly, where leaders from around the world were present, it would have become an international commitment. As he earlier said careful discussions on the issue should take place among the ruling parties, any contradictory stance would have triggered backlash from Komeito.

Apart from this issue, Komeito had been unhappy, saying it was barely consulted over policy plans hammered out by the Prime Minister's Office, such as moving up the time frame to abolish the special corporate tax for disaster construction by one year. The revenues from the tax are used as funds for reconstruction from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

One source close to Abe said: "Although the divided Diet issue has been resolved, the LDP has yet to secure a majority in the House of Councillors. If we upset Komeito now, we'll lose everything."

Abe himself is still thought to be eager to review the government's interpretation within this year. However, he has refrained from setting a specific timetable, telling reporters in New York on Tuesday, "I have no intention to set a timetable [for the review] right now."

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi hailed Abe's approach, saying at a press conference Thursday: "The prime minister says it's necessary to have understanding from various groups, including Komeito. He's keeping in step with us in that discussions should proceed cautiously."

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