Panel to seek limited collective defense under civilian control

A panel of experts will likely propose to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Japan reinterpret the Constitution to lift its long-held ban on use of the right to collective self-defense, and limit its exercise by establishing six conditions, sources close to the matter said Saturday.

The six conditions are meant to ensure civilian control over the use of collective self-defense, as the issue of exercising the right to defend allies under attack is controversial within Japan.

The six conditions include when Japan's security is under great threat, countries with close ties are attacked, and there are clear requests from allies.

Japan would also need to obtain approval from third countries for Japanese forces to pass through their territory, and the prime minister should seek Diet approval for exercising the right, the sources said.

In a report to be submitted to Abe around mid-May, the panel will call for a change in the government's interpretation of the Constitution to enable Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, given the changing security environment in Asia.

Japan has maintained it has the right to collective self-defense under international law, but cannot exercise it due to limits imposed by Article 9 of the Constitution. That clause forbids the use of force to settle international disputes, and only allows the minimum force necessary for self-defense.

As U.S. President Barack Obama expressed support Thursday for Japan's use of the right to collective self-defense, Abe is expected to accelerate work to change the constitutional interpretation.

Based on the panel report, the government is expected to craft its basic policy on the matter and seek Cabinet approval in summer. But the premier first needs to secure endorsement by his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner New Komeito party.

The report by the experts handpicked by Abe to discuss the controversial issue will likely state specifically Japan's Self-Defense Forces can defend U.S. vessels on the high seas, sweep mines along sea lanes from the Middle East, and inspect ships suspected of heading for an enemy which has attacked the United States, Japan's closest ally.

The panel is headed by Japan's former ambassador to the United States, Shunji Yanai.

The security experts will likely propose Japan should redefine "international conflicts" stipulated in Article 9 of the Constitution as only those involving Japan as a major actor, the sources said. Currently, the term is interpreted as meaning all conflicts under the war-renouncing Constitution.

If the new definition is adopted, the SDF can be mobilized for U.N. collective security operations, and provide fuel, transportation and medical treatment to multinational forces operating in combat zones.

The public remains divided over the issue, and New Komeito has expressed caution against what would be the first major overhaul of Japan's security policy long bound by the pacifist Constitution. Abe also plans to revise a series of laws to prepare the legal framework for Japan to use the right.

The panel is expected to urge the government to allow the SDF to be dispatched to defend Japan, rather than confining their operations to policing, when so-called "gray zone" situations that fall short of full-fledged military attacks occur, according to the sources.

Japan remains vigilant against China's maritime assertiveness, especially its repeated intrusions into waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The uninhabited islets are administered by Japan but claimed by China as Diaoyu.