Japan's ruling party wants to upgrade Defense Agency to full ministry

Japan's ruling party wants to upgrade the country's Defense Agency to a full-fledged ministry, the top government spokesman said Tuesday, unveiling a change in line with Japan's more assertive military posture.

The Defense Agency is currently an office under the Cabinet, and making it a ministry would give it more independence and stature. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party plans to submit a bill that would upgrade the agency when parliament resumes in January, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said.

"I am aware that such a direction has been decided within the LDP," Abe said of the plans at a morning briefing. The LDP will consult with its coalition partner, the New Komeito Party, to hash out the legislation, he said.

The change would come at a time when Japan's military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, are their most active since World War II. About 500 noncombat troops are helping with reconstruction in southern Iraq, and a contingent of ships is giving logistical support to anti-terror operations in Afghanistan. Japanese cargo planes are also flying support missions in the Middle East.

The LDP has meanwhile proposed a revision to the country's pacifist constitution that would make it easier for Japanese military forces to fight back in self-defense if attacked and participate in international peacekeeping efforts.

Japan's current constitution, drafted by U.S. occupation forces and unchanged since 1947, bars the use of military force in settling international disputes and prohibits maintaining a military for warfare _ though Japan has interpreted that to mean it can have armed troops to protect itself, allowing the existence of its 240,000-strong Self-Defense Forces.

In its report released in August, the Defense Agency voiced concern about Beijing's rising military spending, noting that China planned to increase its defense budget this year by 12.6 percent _ the 17th straight year of increases of 10 percent or more.

The agency said later that month that it would propose a 1.2 percent increase spending next year to pay for missile defense systems and fighter jets, amid concern about China's increased military strength. Japan has not boosted military spending since a 0.3 percent increase in 2001, despite the Defense Agency's annual requests for more funding, AP reported. V.A.

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