Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed hope Thursday that Japan will defend allies under armed attack by "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.
The government is expected to seek Cabinet approval in time for the planned revision to U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines by the end of the year.
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.
Abe agreed with his handpicked advisory panel that the current legal framework should be reviewed so Japan can better cope with "gray zone" incidents that stop short of full-fledged attacks. These include a group of armed people disguised as fishermen taking control of a remote island, and foreign submarines refusing to leave Japanese territorial waters.
But he said the Self-Defense Forces should not engage in U.N.-led collective security operations because it will not be "logically consistent" with the government's interpretation of the supreme law.
"Japan will not use force to join wars like those in the Gulf and Iraq. It will never happen."
Although U.S. President Barack Obama expressed support for Abe's push for Tokyo's greater security role, the Japanese public is divided over the issue of collective self-defense. 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.
"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," the panel's head Shunji Yanai told reporters after Thursday's meeting of his panel.
"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," said Yanai, who served as former Japaanese Ambassador to the United States.
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.
The experts 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.
Following Abe's press conference in Tokyo, China voiced concern over the possible exercise of right to collective self-defense, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying Beijing has "full reasons to be highly vigilant on Japan's true intentions and its future development" due to its past militarism.
South Korea also called on Japan to uphold the spirit of its pacifist Constitution and maintain transparency in discussing its defense and security policies.
Japan's relations with China remain frayed due mainly to Beijing's claim to Japanese-controlled islets in the East China Sea. Chinese ships have continued to enter waters around the uninhabited islands.