Abe set to be longest-serving Japanese PM

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won a ruling party leadership vote yesterday, setting him on track to become Japan's longest-serving premier.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won a ruling party leadership vote yesterday, setting him on track to become Japan’s longest-serving premier and try to cement his legacy, including by revising the post-war pacifist constitution.

If Abe, who quit abruptly after a troubled 2006-2007 term, stays in office through November 2019, he will have exceeded the 2,886 days marked by Taro Katsura in the early 20th century.

“I want to tackle constitutional reform together with all of you,” Abe told his Liberal Democratic Party after the vote.

Abe, who surged back to power in 2012 promising to reboot the economy and strengthen defense, defeated former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba in the LDP leadership election.

Abe won 553 votes to Ishiba’s 254, a somewhat stronger showing than expected. Of the 810 votes up for grabs from LDP parliamentarians and rank-and-file members, 807 were valid.

Abe told a news conference he would reshuffle his Cabinet after coming back from a trip to New York for a United Nations General Assembly gathering next week. He declined to comment on specific posts but the Nikkei business daily said his close allies, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Finance Minister Taro Aso, would stay.

Abe also said he would set an extra budget for relief from the natural disasters — floods and earthquakes — that have battered Japan in recent months.

Abe’s first immediate challenge, though, is an expected summit with United States President Donald Trump next week, when he will face pressure to cut Japan’s US$69 billion surplus with its key ally, nearly two-thirds from auto exports. Abe is expected to meet Trump on the sidelines of the UN gathering. They have forged close ties but Trump has made clear he’s unhappy about the bilateral trade imbalance and wants a two-way agreement to address it.

Tokyo opposes a bilateral deal for fear it would boost pressure on sensitive sectors such as agriculture.

Revising the pacifist constitution’s Article 9 to clarify the military’s status is one of Abe’s long-held goals. The article, if taken literally, bans maintenance of armed forces but has been interpreted to allow a military for self-defense.

Pushing for the amendment would be politically risky since the public is divided. Amendments require approval by two-thirds of both houses of parliament and a majority in a public referendum.

In reaction to Abe’s reelection as LDP chief, China yesterday voiced expectations for improvement in bilateral ties.

“We expect that Prime Minister Abe will continue attaching importance to the China-Japan relationship and work to improve bilateral ties in a sustained way,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in Beijing.

On Abe’s plan to revise Japan’s constitution, Geng said the international community is always concerned about such moves for historical reasons. “We hope the Japanese side will profoundly learn lessons from history, honor its promise of sticking to the path of peaceful development, and win the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community with concrete moves.”

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