Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday called for a review of legal limits on the military's ability to fight overseas, signalling a potential change in a security policy long constrained by the pacifist, post-war constitution.
Seeking to address concerns among Asian neighbours such as rival China as well as wary Japanese voters, the conservative leader also pledged that Japan would stick to a peaceful path and not again become a "country that wages war".
"Japan has walked the path of a peaceful country for nearly 70 years since the end of the second world war. That path will not change. But we cannot protect our peaceful lives simply by repeating that we are a peaceful country. Our peaceful lives may suddenly confront a crisis. Can anyone say that won't happen?" Abe said at a nationally televised news conference.
Abe, pointing to growing tensions due to China's increasing assertiveness and North Korea's nuclear threat, called for a review of a decades-old interpretation of the constitution that has banned Japan from exercising its right of collective self-defence, or deploying its military to aid friendly countries under attack.
He also said Japan should strengthen its ability to respond to so-called "grey zone" incidents - low-intensity conflicts that fall short of a full-scale attack. Concerns about such clashes have increased due to the tense feud between China and Japan over tiny disputed islands in the East China Sea.
But Abe said the government would not adopt a recommendation by his private advisers that Japan also lift its ban on taking part in UN-led collective security operations, in which nations join together to propel an aggressor against one state.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying criticised the Abe administration for taking "negative actions" that raised concerns about its true motives.
Additional reporting by Associated Press