The ruling coalition kicked off discussions Tuesday aimed at overcoming a fundamental division on whether the Cabinet should reinterpret the Constitution and upgrade Japan’s defense posture in a changing security environment.

While the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants swift progress to that end, New Komeito is cool to the proposed changes and hopes to drag out talks and delay a final decision on collective self-defense.

The parties agreed they should focus first on an expanded role for the Self-Defense Forces in dealing with so-called gray-zone incidents, such as incursions or clashes that fall short of a full-fledged military attack.

Under current rules, for example, the SDF could not retaliate if Chinese commandos landed on the disputed Senkaku Islands disguised as fishermen — unless the prime minister and the Diet specifically authorized it.

The two parties agree that gray-zone incidents are a priority and may be easier to agree on than the bigger issue of collective self-defense. But New Komeito is still seeking in-depth discussions on the matter.

“If we are going to prepare bills for the gray-zone scenarios, we need to spend a considerable amount of time seeking common ground,” said New Komeito Vice President Kazuo Kitagawa, the talks’ vice chairman.

Delegates to the talks include LDP Vice President Masahiko Komura, Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba and New Komeito Secretary-General Yoshihisa Inoue.

Some LDP members say they believe they can browbeat the smaller New Komeito into agreement, as they have done before. But the LDP’s coalition partner needs to delay a decision on collective self-defense for as long as possible in part to avoid it impacting negatively on nationwide local elections next spring.

Lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, which provides New Komeito’s power base, has voiced its opposition to reinterpreting the Constitution.

A New Komeito executive said a hasty decision would cost the party the support of Soka Gakkai members in the poll.

Aware of New Komeito’s concerns, the LDP refrained from raising the question of a deadline during the inaugural talks Tuesday, apparently following the lead of Abe himself, who has said there is no deadline for the Cabinet to decide on reinterpreting Article 9.

But the Cabinet needs to approve the new defense posture, including the right to collective self-defense, by the summer if it is to submit related bills to an extraordinary Diet session in the fall.

The timing is crucial as Japan and the United States hope to revise their defense cooperation guidelines by year-end — the first such revision in 17 years.

The guidelines will likely cover gray-zone scenarios and enhanced interoperability in the case of incidents on the Korean Peninsula that might drag Japan into supporting U.S. forces — if Japan commits itself to collective defense.

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