TOKYO (AP) — Citing threats from China and North Korea, a government-appointed panel is urging Japan to reinterpret its pacifist constitution to allow the use of military force to defend other countries.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe formally received the panel's report Thursday and vowed to seek ways to allow the military to do more for the country's own defense and for international peace.
"We must study if the current interpretation of the constitution is sufficient in order to protect the people and their peaceful lives," Abe said.
But he also sought to assuage concerns both at home and in neighboring countries that he is returning Japan to its militarist past.
"There is a misunderstanding that Japan will return to a country that wages war, but that will never happen," he said. "Japan sticks to its pacifist pledge it has kept since the end of the war."
The report sets the stage for Abe's push to allow the military to play a greater role in international security.
Japan currently maintains a military only for its own defense, and has previously interpreted the war-renouncing Article 9 of its post-World War II constitution as meaning it cannot engage in what is known as collective self-defense.
If approved, the change could allow Japan to come to the defense of the United States or other countries, even if Japan itself is not under attack. Japan has gradually loosened the restrictions of Article 9 over the years to allow overseas deployments of troops in limited circumstances, but never to use their weapons to fight for others.
"Collective self-defense probably goes even further than all the other reinterpretations that Article 9 has seen thus far, so it would be a huge step," said Chris Winkler, a constitutional expert at the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo.
Abe said no country can defend itself alone. Under the current interpretation of the constitution, he said, Japanese troops could not use force to rescue Japanese citizens fleeing on an American ship from a conflict zone if the U.S. vessel came under attack.
"This is the reality. Are we just going to look the other way? Just think, they could be your children, and grandchildren," Abe said.
Abe, however, said Japan will never send troops overseas to wage war.
The proposal faces doubts within Abe's ruling coalition and he will have to build a consensus to win Cabinet approval. Surveys show public opinion is mixed. Opponents say it would undermine the war-renouncing clause of the constitution.
"Currently, the bottom line is whether Japan comes under foreign attack," said Kyouji Yanagisawa, a security expert under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. "What serves as the brake on an abuse of the right to self-defense when Japan is not under direct attack?"
The report said a deteriorating regional security environment, namely threats from China and North Korea, makes Japan's ban on collective self-defense inadequate.
Yosuke Isozaki, Abe's national security adviser, said the change is needed because of rising tensions in east Asia and pressures on U.S. military spending.
"Japan will become a country that can make more international contributions by deepening its relations with the U.S. and expanding our ties with countries other than America," he said.
The United States backs Abe's push for a larger military role, as it wants Japan to bear a greater burden of its own defense.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Japan has demonstrated for more than 60 years a commitment to peace, democracy and global security. She said the U.S. welcomes the debate inside Japan on what the nation's constitution permits, and the decision on whether to allow the right of collective self-defense would be up to its government and people.
"We are confident that Japan will continue their tradition of respect for peace as they have this discussion," she told reporters.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying criticized the Abe administration for taking "negative actions" that raised concerns about Japan's true motives.
"We urge Japan to respect the legitimate and reasonable security concerns of countries in the region, adhere to the path of peaceful development, earnestly face up to and reflect on history, and play a constructive role in the regional peace and stability," Hua told a daily news briefing Thursday.
The report recommended allowing collective self-defense or making other legal changes so that Japan can fight back for America when U.S. warships come under attack while in or near Japan, shoot down a missile heading to the U.S., or participate in minesweeping in distant sea lanes traveled by commercial Japanese vessels.
Experts say many of the scenarios are unlikely because they assume the outbreak of a full-scale war, but collective self-defense could come into play in U.N. peacekeeping operations.
"In that sense, it's an important step forward, but we are not talking about fighting a major war," said Narushige Michishita, a defense expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
Associated Press writers Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.