Japan PM set to launch new government, defense minister may rile China

Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe.
Fiona Goodall | Getty Images
Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was re-elected by parliament on Wednesday, setting the stage for him to launch a new cabinet with a defence minister whose support for Japan having a stronger pre-emptive strike capability could rile China.

Abe has brushed aside suggestions that a record-low election turnout 10 days ago has devalued his victory and vowed to press ahead with his "Abenomics" economic policies and pursue his goal of a more assertive security stance.

Abe will replace Defence Minister Akinori Eto, who has faced questions over his use of political funds, a source with knowledge of the matter said, replacing him with lawmaker Gen Nakatani. He is expected to keep the rest of his cabinet unchanged.

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Abe bowed deeply to applause from lawmakers in parliament's Lower House after the results were read. The new cabinet, his third since returning to power late in 2012, will be sworn in later on Wednesday.

Abe's choice of Nakatani for the defence portfolio is a nod to worries about growing threats from nuclear-armed North Korea and China. Nakatani is a former defence minister who is in favour of Japan having the ability to hit enemy bases pre-emptively in the face of imminent attack.

"If you think what would happen if the United States withdrew, we must consider (acquiring) the ability to respond, because we cannot just sit idly and await death," Nakatani told Reuters earlier this year.

His appointment could draw fire from China, especially given Abe's stated goal of a stronger security profile for Japan that includes passing a law in 2015 to reinterpret Japan's pacifist constitution. This would allow Japan to come to the aid of an ally and pave the way for its troops to fight overseas for the first time since World War Two.

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The Dec. 14 election, which returned his coalition with a large majority, was billed by Abe as a mandate on his reflationary economic policies that include hyper-easy monetary policy, government spending and promises of deregulation. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and coalition partner Komeito maintained their two-thirds "super majority".

Support was lukewarm at best with turnout at a record low 53.3 percent, with many voters torn between their doubts over whether Abe's policies would really help and worries that a weakened opposition could do no better.

Hopes for Abenomics have been dented by data suggesting any recovery is fragile, with Japan slipping back into recession in the third quarter in the wake of an April sales tax rise.