- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2006

TOKYO — Nationalist Shinzo Abe, a proponent of a robust alliance with the United States and a more assertive military, easily won election in parliament to become Japan’s youngest postwar prime minister yesterday, pledging to plow ahead with economic reform, rein in spending and pursue better relations with China.

Mr. Abe, 52, the handpicked successor to retiring Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, stormed to office as a champion of the security pact with Tokyo’s top ally, Washington, revision of the pacifist constitution, a more outspoken foreign policy, and more patriotic education.

“This does not mean to blindly assert Japan’s national interests, but to ask what role Japan should play in the region and the world, and what the international community should strive for,” Mr. Abe declared in his first press conference as prime minister.

Mr. Abe clinched strong majorities in both houses of parliament, reflecting the hold his ruling Liberal Democratic Party has on government.

He stocked his new Cabinet with a wide range of fellow conservatives, including Taro Aso, who will keep his post as foreign minister, and veteran Fumio Kyuma, appointed to a second stint as defense chief.

One of his top challenges will be repairing Japan’s deteriorating ties with China and South Korea. Beijing and Seoul yesterday reacted cautiously to Mr. Abe’s election, calling for the new government to take steps to improve relations.

“China is a very important country for Japan, and China’s development is a plus also for Japan,” Mr. Abe said. “I will work to further develop relations between Japan and China.”

Key to Mr. Abe’s push will be revising Japan’s pacifist constitution, which renounces war as a means of solving international disputes and has formed the cornerstone of its post-World War II identity.

To make Japan a more “normal country,” conservatives want the constitution overhauled to give its military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, greater leeway in contributing to international peacekeeping operations. Changes would also clarify under what situations Japanese forces might come to the aid of an ally under attack.

The new government also will have to find ways of maintaining the economy’s recovery from a decade-long slowdown, and grappling with troubles related to the rapidly aging population.

Mr. Abe pledged to pursue both economic growth and fiscal reform, offering to cut his own pay by 30 percent and those of his Cabinet by 10 percent to demonstrate his commitment to trimming the budget. He is paid about $345,000 a year.

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