Shinzo Abe, the front-runner to be Japan's next prime minister, announced his candidacy Friday, promising to defend Japan's interests and maintain the security alliance with the United States.

Abe, currently chief Cabinet secretary and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's right-hand man, also called on China to "step forward" in arranging a summit with a Japanese prime minister for the first time since 2001.

CountryWatch: Japan

Abe further said he would not disclose any future pilgrimages to the Yasukuni war shrine, which is reviled in China and South Korea as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.

Abe, considered a hawk on security matters and a proponent of a more assertive Japan, has a hefty lead in opinion polls in the Sept. 20 contest for president of the ruling party, a post that virtually guarantees election as premier.

"Japan will follow a foreign policy that makes firm demands based on national interests," Abe told ruling Liberal Democratic Party members. "The security treaty with the U.S. forms the center of Japan's foreign and security policy. We must work to strengthen that stance."

In the interview with NTV, Abe suggested that it was up to China to call for a summit with Japan. The last summit was in 2001, Beijing has since refused to meet with Koizumi because of his visits to Yasukuni, which honors war criminals among Japan's 2.5 million war dead.

"Japan is keeping its door open, and I would like to see China to take a step forward," Abe said when asked about a meeting with China. "I think it is important that both of us make an effort."

The 51-year-old scion of a political family — his grandfather was prime minister and his father was foreign minister — was largely expected to continue the policies laid out by Koizumi.

Abe favors expanding the security alliance with the United States, giving Japan's military more freedom to join peacekeeping and other international operations, and taking a tough stand with China and North Korea.

In speeches and a recently published book, Abe has vowed support for revising Japan's postwar pacifist constitution and creating Japanese versions of the National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency.

"We need a new constitution that fits better for how Japan should be in the 21st century," Abe said in his speech Friday, vowing to win passage of a law allowing a referendum on the constitution by the end of his term.

Japan's ties with Asia, however, could continue to suffer with Abe in office.

Like Koizumi, he is a vocal supporter of Yasukuni. Abe has visited the shrine in the past and reportedly made a secret pilgrimage there in April. He has refused to confirm those reports, however, or to say clearly whether he would visit the shrine as prime minister.

In the interview with NTV, Abe suggested he would keep future visits a secret as well.

"If a disclosure of a visit triggers political and diplomatic issues, I think announcement only invites an unnecessary problem," Abe said.

Abe has also been sympathetic to a group favoring the rewriting of Japanese public school textbooks to remove self-critical references to Tokyo's World War II atrocities, claiming they are unsubstantiated and undermine patriotism.

The grandson of the Nobusuke Kishi, who was arrested as a war criminal after World War II but came back to become prime minister, Abe graduated from Tokyo's Seikei University in 1977 and studied politics at the University of Southern California.

After a stint at Kobe Steel, Abe entered political life as an aide to his father, Shintaro Abe, who became foreign minister in 1982. After his father's death, Abe ran for parliament's lower house and was elected in 1993.

Abe shot to national prominence in 2002, when he took a lead role in pressing North Korea to surrender five Japanese citizens it kidnapped in the 1970s and 80s. He has consistently called for sanctions against Pyongyang to push it to resolve other kidnapping cases.

In the run-up to the race, Abe has attempted to soften his image as a hawk, and the staging the launch of his candidacy in Hiroshima — which was destroyed by a U.S. atomic bomb in 1945 — was seen as a bid to portray himself as a proponent of peace.

Abe is hugely popular, consistently leading all contenders in popularity polls. His rivals — Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso — have yet to mount serious challenges to his lead.