Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba said Tuesday he hopes to see a bilateral missile defense initiative with the United States enter the development phase soon.

“The missile defense is nothing but a posture meant exclusively for self-defense,” he told the House of Representatives Security Committee. “I believe we should exert efforts to get the program to leave the research phase as soon as possible.”

The defense chief stressed the need for coordination within the national government and said the issue should be debated by the Security Council of Japan, which is chaired by the prime minister.

He expressed the same sentiment to the U.S. when he spoke with James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, in Tokyo on Oct. 21, defense sources said earlier.

Ishiba’s remarks were the most affirmative that Japan has made about the missile program so far. Japan’s official stance is that a final decision on moving from research to development is to be made in 2003 or 2004.

Japan and the U.S. are conducting a joint study on a system that would protect Japanese and U.S. forces in the country from medium-range ballistic missiles. The study was agreed to in a bilateral accord in September 1998.

In August 1998, North Korea shocked Japan by testing a Taepodong-1 missile that flew over the Japanese archipelago and landed in the Pacific. Japan responded by imposing sanctions against the North.

The administration of President George W. Bush is planning to deploy multilayered missile-defense networks around the world by integrating systems to protect the U.S. homeland from intercontinental ballistic missiles, and systems to shield its allies and U.S. forces abroad from medium-range missiles.

If a Japanese missile defense system is incorporated into Bush’s initiative, it would go against Japan’s policy of not exercising its right to collective defense, or the right to help allies under foreign attack.

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