By Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese ruling party officials signed off on Monday on bills to implement a drastic change in security policy that would expand the role of the nation's military in the U.S.-Japan alliance and allow it to fight abroad for the first time since World War Two.
The planned changes were reflected in new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines unveiled last month as the allies face challenges such as China's increased military assertiveness. However, surveys show Japanese voters are deeply divided over the shift.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet adopted a resolution last July reinterpreting the pacifist constitution to drop a self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defence, or militarily aiding a friendly country under attack.
The Cabinet is expected to approve the package of bills on Thursday and present them to parliament the next day. This follows Monday's approval by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its more dovish partner, the Komeito party.
"The most important thing is to win the public's understanding as the government explains the new legislation in parliamentary debate. In that sense, we still have quite a long way to go," Komeito deputy chief Kazuo Kitagawa told reporters after officials from the two parties met.
Abe's promise in a speech to the U.S. Congress on April 29 that the legislation would be enacted this summer angered opposition parties, but the bills are expected to pass given the ruling bloc's majority in parliament.
Japanese voters are divided about the changes, which even supporters say has stretched the post-war constitution's pacifist Article 9 to the limit. Abe has made clear he eventually wants to revise Article 9 formally.
A survey by the Yomiuri newspaper published on Monday showed 46 percent backed the changes compared with 41 percent who were opposed. But 48 percent oppose enacting the bills in the current session of parliament, versus 34 percent in favor.
The new legislation would allow Japan to exercise the minimum force necessary in case a country with which Tokyo has close ties is attacked. A planned new law would also allow Japan's military to provide logistics support to foreign forces operating in line with the U.N. charter, without needing a special law for each mission.
Another change would drop geographical limits on Japanese defense support for the U.S. military and other foreign armed forces, which had previously been envisioned as restricted to situations involving contingencies on the Korean peninsula.
(Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Paul Tait)