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Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006

Schieffer's call for missile defense help raises Constitution issue


Staff writer

U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer created a stir Friday by urging Tokyo to shoot down any ballistic missiles that fly over Japanese territory toward the United States, an action that would require a major shift in the government's interpretation of the Constitution.

Article 9 of the Constitution has long been interpreted to prohibit Japan from engaging in collective defense, or the right to come to the defense of an ally if Japan itself is not under attack.

Schieffer urged Japan to examine the question of whether ballistic missiles flying over its territory can be treated as a threat to the nation as well, even if they are headed toward U.S. territory.

"The answer will be absolutely critical to the function and future of our alliance," Schieffer told a Friday news conference at the Japan National Press Club.

He pointed out that Japan would have only few minutes to shoot down a ballistic missile launched from North Korea.

"It is better for us to answer the question (of whether Japan can help defend the U.S.) now than in the future," the ambassador said.

Schieffer's comments come amid heightened tensions with North Korea following its test-firing of ballistic missiles in July and declared nuclear test earlier this month.

Schieffer's suggestion is likely to intensify the domestic debate over whether to revise the Constitution or its interpretation. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has long been an advocate of changing the document, especially Article 9.

Japan and the U.S. are jointly working on missile defense systems aimed at countering ballistic missiles. They include interceptors on board Aegis destroyers that are designed to knock out ballistic missiles in space.

Under the Japan-U.S. security treaty, the U.S. is obliged to defend Japan against attack. But the government's current constitutional interpretation prevents Japan from doing the same for the United States unless Japan itself is under attack.

"The U.S. has a treaty obligation to defend Japan, but Japan does not have a treaty obligation to defend the U.S.," Schieffer pointed out.

At the same time, he stressed the U.S. is fully committed to defending Japan.

In a warning apparently directed at Pyongyang, Schieffer said an enemy would still face a "catastrophic and devastating response from the U.S." should it launch an attack on Japan. He also said issues related to Article 9 are a matter solely for the Japanese people to decide.

Japan plans to create a two-tier missile defense, composed of two types of interceptor missiles developed by the United States -- the Aegis-based Standard Missile-3, which is designed to hit missiles in space, and ground-based Patriot 3 missiles that are meant to destroy ballistic missiles in their descent phase.



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