A government panel will wait until next year to submit a report on whether Japan should be allowed to exercise the right of collective self-defense, government sources said Wednesday.
The decision comes as the New Komeito party, the junior ruling coalition partner of the Liberal Democratic Party, remains reluctant to lift the country's self-imposed ban on exercising the right without thorough discussions on the issue, the sources said.
Securing the support of New Komeito is seen as crucial for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to push ahead with his policy agenda to enable Japan to take on a greater security role amid China's maritime assertiveness and North Korea's missile and nuclear development programs.
With a government decision on whether to change the interpretation of Japan's pacifist Constitution expected in spring at the earliest, the government has already told some of the panel members that "it would be difficult to receive the report by year-end," the sources said.
The government is scheduled to release by year-end Japan's new defense program guidelines and a long-term national security strategy, the first of its kind for the country.
Under the government's interpretation of the Constitution, Japan is not allowed to exercise the right of collective self-defense, given the war-renouncing Article 9, which bans the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.
Launched by Abe to discuss security issues, the 14-member government panel outlined last week a set of scenarios in which Japan's Self-Defense Forces should participate in security engagements.
The panel said the SDF needs to join international minesweeping operations to ensure the safety of sea lanes for shipments of crude oil from the Middle East to Japan, and inspect ships suspected of transporting weapons to an enemy if the United States comes under armed attack.
New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi reiterated his wariness during a meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday, saying Japan needs to gain the understanding of neighboring countries such as China and South Korea regarding the issue of the right of collective self-defense.
Japan has frayed ties with China and South Korea over conflicting territorial claims and divergent perceptions of history. Abe has not held formal summit talks with the leaders of the two countries since taking office last December.
The prime minister is aiming for Article 9 to be eventually amended, but Yamaguchi said it is the Diet, not the government, that initiates constitutional revisions.
"Revising Article 9 would be a divisive issue. We need to be cautious about issues that would divide the public for the next three or four years (until the next lower house election)," Yamaguchi told a gathering at the headquarters of Kyodo News. "It's a low-priority issue."