updated 12/23/2005 10:28:52 PM ET 2005-12-24T03:28:52

The Japanese government has decided to proceed with the United States in developing a joint missile defense shield, a top government official said Saturday.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said steps would be taken to ensure the decision to pursue the shield, which uses defensive missiles to destroy attacking ones before they reach their targets, does not violate Japan’s pacifist constitution.

“Amid proliferation of the weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, the system is a genuinely defensive, and the only instrument to protect the lives and assets of our people,” Abe said. “It suits the defense policy of our country, whose policy is to limit forces for defense.”

However, the project calls for Japan to relax its arms export laws to deploy the system — a major shift from the 1967 policy that bans weapons shipments to communist bloc nations, countries under U.N. arms embargoes or those engaged in conflicts.

Easing the restrictions would mainly free up Japan and the United States to jointly develop and produce a system to intercept a missile strike by a foreign power.

Abe said the easing also does not violate Japan’s pacifist constitutionals bans on the use of force as a means to settle international disputes.

“Based on the basic principle of a pacifist nation, we will continue to cautiously deal with arms export controls,” Abe said.

“Should there be a need to provide weapons to the United States under the joint project, Japan will do so under extremely strict controls.”

Tokyo and Washington agreed in October on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, which included the deployment of a missile defense system.

On the lookout for North Korean missiles
Since last year, the U.S. Navy has been patrolling the Sea of Japan, on the lookout for missiles from North Korea. The isolated, communist North shocked Tokyo and other nations when it test-fired a missile over northern Japan in 1998.

Analysts say North Korea is developing long-range missiles capable of reaching Alaska, Hawaii or perhaps the U.S. West Coast.

Japan’s Defense Agency said earlier this month that the U.S. and Japanese militaries are looking at a site in northeastern Japan to base a radar system for the missile shield.

Tokyo and Washington have been discussing an estimated $3 billion joint defense shield that is expected to be spread over nine years beginning in fiscal 2006. Defense officials have said Japan’s share will total $1 billion to $1.2 billion.

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