Japan tells NATO it's ready for more peacekeeping
BRUSSELS, Jan 12 (Reuters) Japan told NATO today it would not shy away from sending troops abroad for peacekeeping and was ready for closer ties with the alliance within the limits of its pacifist constitution.
Visiting NATO headquarters as part of a trip to major European capitals, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan would try to aid NATO's battle against insurgents in Afghanistan by stepping up humanitarian and other non-combat assistance.
Officials said there was no talk during the meetings of Japan deploying troops to Afghanistan now, but Abe told NATO officials Japan was discussing a legal framework allowing its self-defence forces to take part in peace missions in future.
''While adhering to the principles of the constitution, Japanese will no longer shy away from carrying out overseas activities involving the self-defence forces if it is for the sake of international peace and security,'' Abe said in a speech to NATO ambassadors in Brussels.
A close US ally, Japan has been stretching the limits of its constitution, which bans the maintenance of a military but has been interpreted to allow forces for self defence.
It ended a 600-strong non-combat troop mission to Iraq last July, completing its riskiest overseas deployment since World War Two without firing a shot or suffering casualties.
MILESTONE The dispatch was a milestone in Japan's shift from a purely defensive posture towards a bigger international role for the nation's military, no member of which has fired a shot in combat or been killed in an overseas mission since 1945.
The Iraq deployment, under Abe's predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, won praise from the United States but divided Japanese public opinion.
''There is much more room for Japan to build on its knowledge and experience in areas of peacekeeping, reconstruction aid and disaster relief,'' Abe told a news conference. ''We will be discussing what specific ways we can cooperate where both parties benefit.'' Japan already aids Afghanistan in an effort led by the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised nations but NATO officials said the aim was to see if Japan could directly collaborate with NATO's ''provincial reconstruction teams'' in the country.
''Japan and NATO allies are facing the same threats ... those threats and challenges are of a global nature,'' said NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who wants to bolster NATO's influence through a web of global tie-ups.
Abe, a hawkish conservative, called on NATO to help implement UN sanctions imposed on North Korea after its missile and nuclear tests last year.
''I would welcome NATO taking more interest in East Asian security affairs, including North Korea,'' he said, welcoming a statement by NATO ambassadors condemning Pyongyang's proliferation activities.
Abe, who entered office last September, is keen to develop ties with European capitals and during his trip has visited Berlin and London -- where he met not only his counterpart Tony Blair but Blair's presumed successor Gordon Brown.
He was to travel on to Paris for talks with French government leaders and with Nicolas Sarkozy, top conservative candidate in this year's presidential election, and his Socialist rival Segolene Royal.