TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government on Friday approved legislation to set up a national security council, moving to strengthen the premier's grip on foreign policy in the face of North Korean missile threats and a territorial dispute with China.
The hawkish Abe has pursued the formation of Japan's version of the White House's National Security Council to centralize information gathering and speed up decision-making, a move welcomed by U.S. security experts.
"We have put in place a structure that allows Japan to comprehensively monitor the country's security," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters at a news conference.
The bills are now to be submitted to the current session of parliament, which ends on June 26, for possible enactment in an extraordinary diet session in the fall.
The need for a centralized national security body has been highlighted by North Korea's recent saber-rattling and a deadly January raid by jihadists on a natural gas plant in Algeria.
Japan struggled to obtain information on the Algeria hostage crisis, where 10 Japanese nationals were among three dozen foreign workers killed during the four-day siege of the desert gas plant.
In the East China Sea, a maritime territory dispute has escalated to the point where Beijing and Tokyo scramble fighter jets and patrol ships shadow each other, raising fear that miscalculation could lead to a broader clash.
Similar legislation was presented to parliament six years ago when Abe served his first term as prime minister, but it was dropped after his resignation in the wake of a one-year stint troubled by cabinet-level scandals and his Liberal Democratic Party's rout in an upper-house poll.
Referring to the Sino-Japanese island spat, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told a seminar last month that several Japanese ministries were involved but there was "no process which can get all the information ... to the prime minister in a timely fashion so he can make a decision."
"This formation of an NSC will be very key to Japan's decision-making as we move forward," he said.
Under the security council framework, the prime minister, chief cabinet secretary, foreign and defense ministers would meet regularly to hammer out strategy, while relevant ministers would be called together to respond to emergency situations.
Ministries would be required to quickly provide key information to help the council play a commanding role in setting security policies and handling national emergencies.
The current security council of nine ministers has been criticized as being too cumbersome, while relevant offices such as the defense and foreign ministries are said to take too long to share critical information.
In a move to boost Japan's defensive capabilities, Abe has also proposed amending the pacifist, U.S.-drafted constitution to loosen restraints on the military.
Koichi Oizumi, professor at Aomori Chuo Gakuin University, said the creation of the national security council would be a step in the right direction but Japan would still face a tough task of training intelligence specialists.
"What's important is training people, which is time-consuming and money-consuming. They can set up a system, but without the right people, how can the system function?" Oizumi said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said late in May that the government recognized the importance of nurturing experts in the field, but that no specific measures had been decided.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Linda Sieg; Editing by Stephen Coates)
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