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Before Resigning, Prime Minister Makes A Final Push To Strengthen Japan's Military


Shinzo Abe, Japan's longest-serving prime minister, is stepping down this week after eight years in office. With his career ending, he has made a final push to strengthen Japan's military. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, that push could affect the balance of power in Asia.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At a press briefing last month to announce his resignation, Abe said the country faces an increasingly harsh security environment.



KUHN: "North Korea has greatly improved its ballistic missile capabilities," he said. He questioned if it's enough just to be able to intercept those missiles and later suggested Japan also needs a missile arsenal as a deterrent. That could alter the security landscape in Asia. Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out that at the moment...

SHEILA SMITH: Japan is the only country in Northeast Asia that does not maintain ballistic missiles.

KUHN: One of Abe's career-long goals has been to throw off post-World War II restrictions on Japan's military. He failed to revise Japan's constitution in which Japan gives up the right to wage war. But in 2015, he did push through legislation allowing Japan to deploy troops overseas in support of allies. At the time, he explained it like this.


ABE: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "Let us no longer turn a blind eye to the changes in the environment and remain idle," he said. He urged Japanese to be more confident. Abe also oversaw the making of Japan's first aircraft carrier since World War II. President Trump boarded one of them on a visit to Japan last year and praised his host.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to thank my friend and your prime minister - he's an extraordinary man - for his commitment to improving Japan's defense capabilities, which also advances the security of the United States of America.

KUHN: President Trump has questioned the need to protect wealthy allies like Japan who he says don't pay their fair share of defense costs. Masahisa Sato, a lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, says that even before Trump, Japan knew that the U.S. was weary from decades of foreign wars.


MASAHISA SATO: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "President Obama said that the U.S. is going to stop being the world's policeman," he says. "And," the lawmaker added, "the trend of countries taking more responsibility for their own defense will continue regardless of who the new U.S. president is." Washington and Tokyo insist their alliance remains ironclad, but doubts about America's commitment are driving the Japanese debate about missile defense. Sheila Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations says this represents a shift in Japanese people's thinking.

SMITH: They've grown up with the U.S.-Japan alliance as the - you know, like, the framework within which Japan thinks about its security. They don't have a conversation or have never really had a thought process in their public policy debate that says, so what do we do if the alliance doesn't work?

KUHN: Former defense official Koji Yanagisawa argues that Japan now faces twin risks in its alliance with the U.S.

KOJI YANAGISAWA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "One risk," he says, "is that the U.S. might abandon Japan." "The other growing risk," he says, "is that the U.S. may drag Japan into an unnecessary conflict - for example, with China." He says Japan should focus on diplomatic solutions, such as mediating between Washington and Beijing, rather than seeking new weapons. The outcome of Japan's internal debate on missile defense will become clear by year's end, when Shinzo Abe's successor and his government roll out a new policy.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.


Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

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