May 15, 2014 3:55 am JST

Abe trying to bring doves aboard with broader defense powers

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will step up a public relations campaign to persuade the public and recalcitrant allies to accept an expansion of Japan's defense rights, determined to tread carefully over this politically explosive issue.

     A national security panel is set to submit a report Thursday recommending that the government reinterpret the constitution to allow the country to use force to assist allies under attack. Abe intends to hold a news conference following the document's release to explain his plans.

     "I plan to offer a thorough explanation to allay any concerns," Abe told senior members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Wednesday night.

     Enabling Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defense has been Abe's most cherished political goal since he first became prime minister in 2006. But since taking the helm again in December 2012, he has been careful not to play up the issue, instead focusing on an economic revival. Abe has not forgotten that his excessive focus on expanding defense powers branded him a hawkish leader during his previous tenure, eroding public support.

     The panel has also been cautious, in keeping with the prime minister's wishes. Its final discussions ended in early February, but the report was delayed for some time to allow for consensus-building within the ruling coalition.

     A strict gag order has been issued to prevent panel members from leaking the content of the report, prompting one member to sarcastically remark that he had not seen the report, which was being written by a small group within the panel.

     With collective self-defense supporters making up a majority of the panel, the government is scrambling to prevent leaks to avoid inflaming public opinion.

     Abe's news conference on Thursday will mark the starting point for debate within the coalition. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga emphasized Wednesday that "gaining the support of everyone in the ruling coalition is the top priority."

     The main step being taken to appease the doves, particularly coalition partner New Komeito, is a set of specific cases requiring a reinterpretation of the constitution and legal support.

     Some had opposed this approach, concerned that presenting specific cases might impose significant limitations, but a compromise was ultimately reached with New Komeito, which wanted to see the list. The government plans to come up with a collection of around 15 cases before debate begins.

     In a Nikkei poll conducted late last month, 49% of respondents opposed reinterpreting the charter to permit the use of collective self-defense, while only 38% are in favor. In addition to objections from New Komeito, Abe is also concerned about caution among the public.