Japan's defence ban must be revised, says government panel
Rewriting constitution is too hard for now, so reinterpretation to let Tokyo help allies is vital to counter a resurgent China, advisers warn
A panel set up by the Japanese government is to recommend a reinterpretation of the section of the constitution that bans the nation from assisting allies at a time of military crisis - legally described as collective defence - until there is enough public support for rewriting the constitution.
The 14-strong panel held its latest round of discussions on Tuesday, examining the best ways in which Japan might enhance its defences given the growing threats to regional stability.
Those perceived threats were not specified, but the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made no secret of the fact that it sees a resurgent China as a challenge to peace in the Asia-Pacific region.
There also are fears over an unpredictable and nuclear-armed North Korea.
The panel, headed by Shunji Yanai, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States, will suggest that the strict terms of the constitution can be circumvented by reinterpreting them.
Revising the relevant sections would be more difficult - requiring the support of two-thirds of both chambers of the parliament, as well as the broad support of the public.
But Abe has said that such a revision is his ultimate ambition.
In Tuesday's meeting, which was attended by Abe, the panel said it would present a draft version of its recommendations in the coming weeks and then a final report after April.
To conservatives, it cannot come soon enough, even if it will once again lead to criticism from Japan's neighbours.
"Currently, should warships belonging to the United States or any of our other allies be attacked by an enemy on the high seas, Japan can do absolutely nothing to assist or support them," Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, said.
"This is a quite extraordinarily bad situation that US ships can assist Japanese vessels, but not the other way around. In order for Japan to secure the alliance with the US, it is inevitable that we reinterpret the constitutional ban on collective defence."
Shimada said China's belligerence was playing into the Japanese government's hands.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party's position on revising the basic law already had the support of some smaller parties, while others - including the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan - "are not strongly opposed".
Shimada said it was "inevitable" that Beijing would protest against any changes, as any measure that enhanced Japan-US security ties would have a negative impact on China's regional interests.
But he said South Korea would welcome the initiative.
"Anything that strengthens Japan's defence links with the US is also good for South Korean security," Shimada said.
"Even my conservative friends in South Korea say the same and I believe President Park [Geun-hye] secretly supports this as well."
Abe has said he wants Japan to assume a greater role in international peacekeeping campaigns, something it can't do since the constitution - largely written by the US after the second world war - went into force.
Addressing the panel on Tuesday, Abe said: "Japan's preparations for national security threats in the region are not sufficient. We must cover all the bases to protect the lives and safety of the people, in any possible scenario."