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Panel: Japan should lift ban on collective defense

– A government panel will urge Japan to allow its military to help allies that come under attack, in a major reversal of the country’s ban on collective defense under its pacifist constitution.

The panel on Tuesday discussed ways that Japan can improve its defense capability and said it will present its near-final draft recommendation in coming weeks, before its final report is expected after April.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants Japan to play a greater role in international peacekeeping and step up its defense posture, mainly because of potential military threats that Japan sees from China and North Korea. As China’s influence rises and that of the United States fades in the region, Japan is trying to expand its defense alliance outside of its “cornerstone” ties with Washington and has signed defense agreements with several other countries, including Britain and Australia.

The 14-member panel, headed by former Ambassador to the U.S. Shunji Yanai, says the revision is possible if the government alters its current interpretation of the war-renouncing constitution. Formal constitutional change involves high hurdles, though Abe eventually hopes to achieve that.

The constitution, written under U.S. direction after World War II, says the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation” and that “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” The government has interpreted those clauses as meaning that Japan cannot possess offensive military weapons such as ICBMs or long-range strategic bombers.

Abe and other supporters of the change believe that restrictions should be removed from the military, and that Japan’s current self-defense-only policy is inadequate as the region’s security environment becomes more challenging. They say U.S. warships may come under attack while in or near Japan, or there may be instances in which Japanese troops have to fight for allies during international peacekeeping missions, even when Japan is not attacked directly.

“Japan’s preparation for national security threats in the region is not sufficient,” Abe said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We must cover all the bases to protect the people’s lives and safety in any possible scenario.”

Japan has repeatedly loosened restrictions on its military over time as it tried to raise its international profile and meet expectations from the U.S. and other countries. But its peacekeeping missions have been limited to noncombat roles because of its pacifist rules, and a change would allow its troops to do more.

The draft report is also expected to urge Japan to relax its restrictions on arms exports, participate more actively in U.N.-led security operations, and prepare a legal framework for its military to counter intrusions on remote Japanese-held islands, apparently including territory in the East China Sea also claimed by China. It would also urge Japan to strengthen its defense ties with its allies, most importantly the United States.

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