Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed Thursday his desire for Japan to defend allies under armed attack by allowing "limited" use of the right to collective self-defense, after a panel of security experts urged the government to lift its long-standing ban.
In a clear nod to Abe's push for an overhaul of postwar security policy, the panel said Japan needs to reinterpret the pacifist Constitution as the regional security landscape has changed due to China and North Korea, but there should be a set of conditions so the use of the right will be kept in check.
"One proposal is that limited exercise of the right to collective self-defense should be allowed when Japan's security is at great risk," Abe told a press conference. "We will study it further."
Abe said what Japan is trying to do is to bolster deterrence by preparing the legal framework to cope with any contingencies, dispelling "misconceptions" that Japan will go to war again. "I'd like to make clear that Japan will continue to be a pacifist state written in the Constitution."
The ruling bloc of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito party will officially start a debate next week on the issue to find middle ground, before the government seeks Cabinet approval.
But New Komeito is wary of departing from Japan's security policy long symbolized by the war-renouncing Constitution that bans the use of force to settle international disputes.
For decades, Tokyo has said the exercise of the right would go beyond "the minimum" allowed under war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution for Japan to defend itself. But the panel, handpicked by Abe, urged the government to tweak what it calls an "inappropriate" interpretation to say collective self-defense falls under the minimum level of defense.
Headed by former Japanese Ambassador to the United States Shunji Yanai, the panel also asked the government to review the legal framework to enable the Self-Defense Forces to engage in collective security operations, and cope with "gray zone" incidents that stop short of full-fledged military attacks.
"If we interpret Article 9 as it is, the exercise of the right to collective self-defense is allowed and so is participation in U.N. collective security operations," Yanai told reporters after Thursday's meeting of his panel.
The Japanese public is already divided over the issue of collective self-defense, and some critics argue that Abe should seek to amend, rather than reinterpret, the Constitution. They say the latest move would still gut Article 9, the backbone of Japan's postwar security framework.
"There are views that constitutional amendment is better than reinterpretation... but we have very strict rules to be followed to amend the Constitution and realistically speaking it would be almost impossible," Yanai said.
Under the panel's proposed criteria, Japan should be able to use the right to collective self-defense when inaction would threaten its security, and allies that have come under attack make clear requests for help.
The National Security Council -- a body launched last year to speed up decision-making -- will weigh the necessity of Japan coming to the aid of an ally, and the prime minister will seek approval from the Cabinet as well as the Diet, a process designed to prevent unlimited use of collective self-defense.
As specific examples of Japan's potential exercise of the right to collective self-defense, the panel cited defending U.S. vessels being attacked on the high seas near Japan, intercepting ballistic missiles targeting U.S. soil and minesweeping in vital sea lanes.
In other proposals for a review of Japan's legal constraints, the experts said the definition of "international disputes" in Article 9 should mean only those involving Japan as a main actor, rather than every conflict.
They also called for legalizing the use of weapons in protecting other foreign troops engaged in U.N. peacekeeping operations, and allowing the SDF to rescue Japanese nationals in emergency situations abroad after the Algerian hostage crisis in January last year killed dozens of foreign nationals, including 10 Japanese.
The concept of collective self-defense came into the spotlight in Japan in the 1960s when the Japan-U.S. security treaty was revised. The current stance that Japan cannot exercise the right was established in 1981.
The envisaged removal of the ban is part of Japan's much broader reworking of the security framework amid threats from an assertive China and North Korea's missile and nuclear development programs. Abe has pledged to enable Japan to make more contributions to global peace, but it could unnerve Asian neighbors such as China.
Japan's relations with China remain frayed due mainly to Beijing's claim to Japanese-controlled islets in the East China Sea.
The experts also stressed the need for the SDF to handle "gray zone" scenarios, such as armed groups disguised as fishermen taking control of a remote Japanese island, and foreign submarines refusing to leave Japanese territorial waters despite repeated warnings.
Currently, the SDF cannot use force unless there is an imminent and illegitimate act of aggression against Japan, and there are no other appropriate means than the use of right to self-defense.