Japan’s defence minister has doubled down on the nation’s right to carry out an air strike against an enemy base if intelligence indicates an attack on Japan is imminent. The declaration appears to be aimed at North Korea , which has stepped up its ballistic missile tests since the turn of the year, and is likely to stir further debate on Japan’s pacifist constitution. In a hearing of the Diet’s lower house budget panel on Wednesday, Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said he would not rule out the option of sending fighter aircraft into another state’s airspace to carry out a pre-emptive strike against a military installation. He added, however, that any such attack would be a last resort to protect the nation from inbound missiles. Kishi’s remarks are significant because Japan has a pacifist constitution. Just how much leeway Tokyo has to attack a target in a foreign country under the terms of that constitution has become a matter of great debate in Japan in recent years. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is the latest leader to indicate that he hopes to either revise or reinterpret the constitution to give Japan a better chance to defend itself. The defence minister qualified his remarks in the Diet by saying prerequisites would need to be met before the Self-Defence Forces could be ordered to attack a base in another country. These included limiting the use of force to only that necessary to complete the mission, the Nikkei newspaper reported. At present Tokyo largely relies on defensive systems to ward off attacks, equipping its warships with the Aegis missile and installing Patriot systems on land. Both systems are aimed at intercepting incoming missiles. Even so, plans to construct two advanced Aegis Ashore facilities had to be cancelled due to local opposition. But it has begun to toy with more aggressive military capabilities, including the idea of developing a new class of submarine that would be capable of launching cruise missiles against a range of targets. Kishi’s comments indicate that aircraft would at present be tasked with carrying out any pre-emptive attack. “It would fall within the scope of self-defence,” he told the panel in the Diet, Japan’s parliament. No option will be ruled out as long as it falls within the scope of the constitution and international law Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno In a subsequent press conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said that, “no option will be ruled out as long as it falls within the scope of the constitution and international law.” Adding pressure to the debate are the seven missile launches conducted so far this year by North Korea, including an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of hitting the US territory of Guam and a weapon described by Pyongyang as a hypersonic ballistic missile . “I very much suspect this has been at least in part brought on by North Korea’s recent missile launches, with the Japanese government feeling that now is the right time to have the debate about Japan having what could be seen as offensive weapons,” said Akitoshi Miyashita, a professor of international relations at Tokyo International University. He said whether a weapon was seen as defensive or offensive was largely subjective, pointing out that in the late 1950s then-prime minister Nobusuke Kishi had said even a nuclear weapon could be considered defensive in nature if it worked as a deterrent against an attack. “I think that Kishida and [defence minister] Kishi feel that North Korea’s actions have created the opportunity to rethink the nation’s defensive options, and I also believe that very few people in Japan are now opposed to the government shifting to a more aggressive position,” he said. With the opposition parties also still weak, the threat posed by Pyongyang’s missiles gave the prime minister the chance to take a firmer stance, he added. South Korea, US envoys to meet after North’s latest missile test Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University, also felt Kishi’s comments were aimed at Pyongyang. “North Korea has carried out more missile tests in the last two months than they did in the two years before that, so Kishi’s comments are part of the wider message that Japan is a close ally of the United States and South Korea and is ready to stand up for itself and play a greater role in its own security.” The warnings may be more of a threat than a committed course of action, he said, pointing out that when a North Korean Hwasong-12 ballistic missile flew over Hokkaido in August 2017, it was already in space and therefore beyond Japan’s territorial airspace, meaning that there was nothing that Japan could do to interfere with the launch. Nagy expects another flurry of North Korean launches in the near future, including potentially another intercontinental ballistic missile over Japan. Pyongyang was just waiting for the Beijing Winter Olympics to conclude, he said. “The Olympics are designed to help China boost its ‘soft power’ appeal so North Korea will not want to poke its ally in the face while the Games are still on, but I expect that to change next month, when the Olympics are over and as the South Korean presidential election draws closer,” he said. A victory for a left-leaning candidate keen to continue President Moon Jae-in’s policy of engagement towards North Korea might provoke only a brief flurry of missile tests, Nagy suggested, while a win for the conservative opposition would probably lead to a stronger response from the North. South Korea election: who’s running and what’s their China policy? Pyongyang will also want to grab Washington’s attention as it attempts to wriggle out of international sanctions imposed as a direct result of its nuclear and missile programmes, he said. Analysts believe that North Korea is investing heavily in the development of a wide range of missiles across all categories of range and payload in order to have the capability to saturate the anti-missile defences of South Korea, the US and Japan. That would then give Pyongyang the ability to negotiate from a position of strength, particularly if it maintains its alliance with Beijing and China is able to weaken the influence of the US in the Indo-Pacific region.