TOKYO -- The speed with which Shinzo Abe moved to broaden Japan's defense powers surprised even those within his close circles. The changing security environment, characterized by China's growing military might and declining U.S. influence, apparently pushed the prime minister to risk criticism of a hasty policy shift.
On Tuesday, the cabinet lifted constitutional restrictions to allow Japan to come to the aid of allies under attack, a goal Abe had been pursuing for the past eight years. It was an extremely quick decision given he officially announced the plan to the public in mid-May.
Late last month, when the ruling coalition was ironing out the details, Abe told his key allies that now is the only chance for his government to sell the controversial policy change given a crowded political schedule in the fall, which includes a decision on another consumption tax hike and the process of restarting nuclear reactors.
Back in 2007, during his first stint as prime minister, Abe called on Japan to "abandon the postwar regime" and explored ways to expand Japan's defense powers. But he stepped down before a panel of experts drew up its report.
After returning to the helm in December 2012, Abe was struck by what he saw as the region's tenuous hold on peace, threatened by a rising China. He repeated to those close to him that principles are important but pragmatism is what really matters.
China has been flexing its muscles in the region's resource-rich seas. And it has become increasingly assertive, as exemplified by provocations by Chinese military aircraft that have flown extremely close to Japanese Self-Defense Force planes.
Another concern is the weaker military presence of the U.S., Japan's longtime ally. With the Obama administration having focused on pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the country's clout in the region has been diminished. Some Japanese government officials worry that the U.S. military's presence in the Asia-Pacific region could decline in the future as well.
Abe's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minster from 1957 through 1960, was a firm believer in the idea that a more assertive Japan will strengthen its alliance with the U.S. Abe seems to have inherited his doctrine.
"Japan will become an equal partner with the U.S. if it can exercise" the right to collective self-defense, Abe has said in the past. "We will be able to assert our opinions more."
Abe has assembled a team of 30 experts directly under the National Security Secretariat, which serves as headquarters for national security policy, to create a legal framework for overseas military action. Abe plans to complete the process of drafting legislation before the fall's parliamentary session and aim for the bills' swift passage. With lawmakers increasingly alarmed by Abe's hasty military shift, he may be in for a showdown in the Diet.