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US hopes for closer military ties with Japan

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A friend of the US ... Liberal Democratic Party leader, Shinzo Abe.

A friend of the US ... Liberal Democratic Party leader, Shinzo Abe. Photo: Getty Images

The return of conservative leader Shinzo Abe in Japan has raised hopes in Washington for closer security ties, although US officials hope he keeps a lid on his more strident views.

Mr Abe is a champion of revising the post-World War II pacifist constitution and may take shorter-term steps such as boosting defence spending and allowing greater military co-operation with the United States, Japan's treaty-bound ally.

His Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled almost continuously from 1955 until 2009, roared back on Sunday with a crushing victory over the Democratic Party of Japan, which Mr Abe accused of harming relations with the United States.

Abe is due to take over as prime minister on December 26.

The US President, Barack Obama's relations with DPJ-led Japanese governments have substantially improved after early friction. But Mr Abe is seen as more supportive of US force deployments and has vowed no compromise with China in a worsening row over disputed islands.

Michael Green, the senior vice president for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr Abe's victory was a "net positive" for the United States and could in fact stabilise Japan-China ties.

"The view in Beijing is that their pressure tactics are working on Japan and I think it's important to disabuse them of that," Mr Green said.

But, he said, US priorities in Asia – particularly the relationship between allies Japan and South Korea – could face setbacks if Abe pursues a hard line over emotive history issues.

Mr Abe, whose grandfather was arrested but not indicted as a World War II war criminal, has called in the past for rescinding Japan's apology to wartime sex slaves, known euphemistically as "comfort women".

But Mr Abe, during his previous 2006-07 premiership, worked to repair ties with China and South Korea and avoided politically charged visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which honours 2.5 million Japanese war dead including war criminals.

Mr Abe will likely face domestic pressure not to antagonise neighbours. Japanese business leaders have been alarmed by tensions and Mr Abe governs in a coalition with New Komeito, a Buddhist party with pacifist views.

Konishi said there were "probably some circles in town that welcome" the return of familiar faces in the Liberal Democratic Party, but added that the Obama administration had developed a strong relationship with the Democrats.

Mr Obama and Mr Abe spoke on Monday, reaffirming "the importance of the US-Japan alliance as the cornerstone of peace and security in the region", the White House said.

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