Opinion / Cai Hong

Abe's dream of change to constitution failing test of public opinion

By Cai Hong (China Daily) Updated: 2017-03-06 07:47

Abe's dream of change to constitution failing test of public opinion

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gestures during a press conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 21, 2016. [Agencies]

In his first speech to Congress last week, US President Donald Trump kept asking friends and partners from Europe to the Middle East to the Pacific to pay their "fair share" of the cost of the alliances.

"And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that," he said. "In fact, I can tell you the money is pouring in."

Japan's lower house approved on February 27 the budget bill for fiscal 2017 starting on April 1, with the defense spending rising for a fifth straight year to a record 5.1 trillion yen ($45 billion), or 1.4 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the Diet, the country's parliament, that under his administration there is no thought of keeping the defense budget below 1 percent of GDP, referring to an informal threshold seen as a curb on military spending.

As early as January 25 when he responded to questions on national security in the upper house, Abe made clear his will to enhance Japan's defense to play a greater role in its alliance with the US. He called the alliance the "cornerstone" of Japan's foreign and national security policy.

So it is no surprise that he welcomed Trump's plan to boost Pentagon spending by a "historic" $54 billion or 10 percent.

"Strengthening the Japan-US alliance through the increase (in defense spending) will be positive for the peace and prosperity of not only Japan and the United States but also the Asia-Pacific region," Abe said flatteringly at a session of House of Representatives Budget Committee on Thursday.

Japan's 2017 defense budget will cover a new amphibious force and next-generation military hardware such as a sea-based ballistic missile interceptor system known as the Standard Missile-3 Block 2A, co-developed by Japan and the US.

The drastic shift in the Abe administration's defense policy is at odds with the country's Constitution, which bans Japan from maintaining military potential, or from using force as a means of settling international disputes.

Abe knows it well and is ready to clear the hurdle.

In his address to open the ordinary Diet session on January 20, Abe highlighted the importance of the security alliance with the US and called on Diet members to seriously debate constitutional revision.

A campaign policy for 2017, which the LDP unveiled on February 21, states that the party will take a specific step toward proposing a draft of constitutional revisions.

The LDP officially approved the campaign policy at its convention on Sunday. Also, it formalized a rule change to allow party leaders a third consecutive three-year term, clearing the way for Abe to run again after his current tenure as party chief ends in September 2018. If the LDP stays in power, Abe would highly likely remain prime minister to fulfill his dream of rewriting Japan's Constitution.

Japan will observe the 70th anniversary of the enforcement of the Constitution this year, which Abe deems a good time for deliberations on a new one.

The pro-amendment camp has a two-thirds majority in both houses, enough to initiate constitutional revisions.

However, more than 50 percent of the interviewees in an opinion poll done by Mainichi Shimbun in January said there is no need to rush discussion on constitutional amendment in the Diet, as opposed to the 35 percent who wanted the Diet to speed up debate on the issue.

Public opinion matters for Abe's dream of changing Japan's Constitution, as any amendments would still have to be approved by a national referendum.

The author is China Daily Tokyo bureau chief. caihong@chinadaily.com.cn

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