Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday he wants Cabinet approval within the year for a plan to reinterpret Japan's pacifist Constitution and lift the ban on the right to collective self-defense, amid heated debate in the Diet and within his ruling coalition.
Abe again expressed his desire to reflect the planned defense reforms in revised guidelines for security cooperation between Japan and the United States, on which their officials are expected to agree by the end of December.
Exercising the right, which requires Japan to lift its decades-old self-imposed ban, means the country would come to the defense of an ally, most notably the United States, when it is under armed attack that is not necessarily targeted at Japan.
"Japan and the United States have agreed to complete work on revising the guidelines by the year-end," Abe said at a session of the House of Councillors' Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "It is desirable that (the Cabinet) will make a decision in time for that."
Japan's defense reforms come along with the prime minister's key policy goal of more proactively contributing to global peace and stability, based on international cooperation.
The reforms would ease other restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces, including ones associated with responding to intrusion by foreign submarines into Japanese waters, joining U.N. peacekeeping missions, and using force under such international operations.
Abe said the upcoming Cabinet decision will cover those issues as well as the matter of collective self-defense.
However, Abe has been criticized for rushing to dilute the postwar restrictions on the SDF. It is also said he is choosing to change the government's interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution rather than adopt a more lengthy way of revising the supreme law itself, which is another policy goal of his.
Separate from Diet deliberations, the ruling bloc is discussing the reforms but Abe's Liberal Democratic Party faces skepticism from its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito party, particularly over collective self-defense. There is one New Komeito member who is a Cabinet minister.
The current government position is that Japan has the right to collective self-defense under international law but cannot use it due to the limits imposed by the Constitution, which bans the use of force to settle international disputes.
As an example of use of the right, Abe envisions the SDF protecting U.S. military vessels transporting Japanese citizens from a third country in the event of an emergency.
"It is possible that we could have an emergency in nearby countries," Abe said at the upper house committee without clarifying the name of the countries. "We need to take into account the possibility that Japanese citizens are stranded."
He also said the SDF might exercise the collective self-defense right in minesweeping in international sea lanes, apparently considering the Strait of Hormuz, a strategically important chokepoint in the Middle East, through which almost all of Japan's crude oil imports come.
The SDF is currently not allowed to conduct minesweeping on the high seas unless Japan is under armed attack, Abe said.
While underscoring that Japanese ships could be endangered, he said that if the ruling parties agree to change the constitutional interpretation, the Cabinet will make its own decision to endorse the agreement.