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Japan PM likely to push security agenda next year with fresh urgency

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will likely push with fresh urgency next year a bid to ease legal limits on the Japanese military's ability to fight shoulder to shoulder with allies overseas, a goal that eluded him in his first troubled term.

Lifting Japan's self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense would mark a major turning point for Japan's post-war security policy and could increase tensions in the region, where a row over tiny uninhabited islands in the East China Sea encapsulates growing Sino-Japanese mistrust.

Since its World War Two defeat in 1945, Japan's military has not engaged in combat. However, successive governments have stretched the limits of the U.S.-drafted, pacifist constitution to allow non-combat missions abroad.

Abe — whose first term as premier ended when he abruptly quit in 2007 due to parliamentary deadlock and ill health — returned in triumph a year ago this month, pledging to revive Japan's stagnant economy and bolster its global security clout.

“Although there is no national election scheduled until 2016, if he doesn't resolve various issues in parliament next year, momentum will falter and he will run out of time,” said Hokkaido University professor Jiro Yamaguchi.

“Abe probably feels strongly that next year will be the last chance to implement his long-held goals.”

Until last month, Abe's popularity ratings were above 60 percent, rare for a Japanese leader after a year in office, thanks to an economic recovery and buoyant stock prices which were in turn fuelled by hyper-easy monetary policy, a pillar of his “Abenomics” growth agenda.

National Security Council and Strategy

Last month he achieved one cherished goal in his conservative agenda when parliament enacted a law to create a National Security Council, which will concentrate control over security and diplomatic policies in the prime minister's hands.

A first-ever National Security Strategy to be approved next Tuesday will underscore Abe's push to bolster the military and raise Japan's security profile in the face of a rising China.

Public concerns in Japan about China's growing military assertiveness have so far provided support for Abe's stance.

Abe's support, however, slid to about 50 percent this month after his ruling bloc steamrolled through parliament a strict state secrets act that the government says is vital to persuade allies to share intelligence. Critics, however, say it echoes Japan's wartime authoritarian regime and will muzzle the media.

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