December 24, 2014 / 2:53 AM / in 3 years

Japanese PM unveils new government, defense pick may rile China

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled a new cabinet on Wednesday, appointing a defense chief whose desire for a stronger pre-emptive strike capability could rile neighbor China.

Japan's new Defence Minister Gen Nakatani arrives at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence in Tokyo December 24, 2014. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Gen Nakatani, a lawmaker who served in the armed forces for several years, has served as defense minister before and favors Japan having the ability to hit enemy bases pre-emptively in the face of imminent attack.

He replaces Akinori Eto, who had faced questions over his use of political funds. The rest of the cabinet, Abe’s third since he returned to power late in 2012, was unchanged.

Abe stressed Nakatani’s experience as the reason for his appointment, while emphasizing the need to improve ties with China, South Korea and Russia.

Despite suggestions that a record-low election turnout 10 days ago had devalued his victory, Abe vowed to push on with his “Abenomics” brand of stimulus policies and craft an economic package later this week while pursuing a more assertive security stance.

“A strong economy will allow us to build strong diplomacy, which is closely linked with security. That’s the very reason I have promised to place the utmost priority on the economy,” Abe told a televised news conference.

His choice of Nakatani for the defense portfolio is a nod to concerns about growing threats from nuclear-armed North Korea and China.

Nakatani’s appointment could draw fire from China, especially given Abe’s stated goal of a stronger security profile for Japan that includes passing a law in 2015 to reinterpret its pacifist constitution.

This would allow the country to come to the aid of an ally and pave the way for its troops to fight overseas for the first time since World War Two.

Nakatani, 57 and a graduate of the National Defence Academy, said on Wednesday that this would be only for defensive reasons and was not to be seen as a means to go to war or invade another country.

The Dec. 14 election, which returned his coalition with a large majority, was billed by Abe as a mandate on his reflationary economic policies that include hyper-easy monetary policy, government spending and promises of deregulation.

His Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner Komeito maintained their two-thirds “super majority” in the vote, but turnout fell to a record low 53.3 percent.

Additional reporting by Hyun Oh; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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