By Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's cabinet approved on Thursday bills to implement a drastic shift in security policy allowing the military to fight abroad for the first time since World War Two, although the public is divided and wary over the changes.
The planned changes, reflected in new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines unveiled last month, set the stage for Japan to play a bigger role in the bilateral alliance as Tokyo and Washington face challenges such as China's growing military assertiveness.
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-defense, or militarily aiding a friendly country under attack.
At a news conference after the cabinet's approval, Abe rejected concerns the new policy would increase the risk of Japan becoming entangled in wars through its alliance with Washington, and said it would instead boost deterrence.
He said would there was "no room for doubt" that Japan would keep its 70-year-old pledge not to become a bellicose nation.
But he added: "Let us no longer close our eyes to the changes of the times and remain at a standstill. Shouldn't we move forward with confidence to hand down a peaceful Japan to our children?"Commenting on the planned legislation, China called on Tokyo to learn the lessons of history, while South Korea urged Japan to stick to the constitution's spirit.
Tokyo's ties with both are strained by feuds over the wartime past, disputed territory and regional rivalry, although Sino-Japanese relations have improved somewhat recently.
"We hope that Japan can earnestly learn the lessons of history, uphold the path of peaceful development ... and play a constructive role in this Asian region," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying in Beijing told reporters.
Debate in parliament will likely be fiery, but the bills are expected to pass given the ruling bloc's majority in parliament.
Opinion polls show that Japanese voters are both confused by and divided over the changes, which even supporters say have stretched the constitution's pacifist Article 9 to the limit.
Abe has made clear he wants to formally revise Article 9, a more politically difficult goal to achieve.
A survey by public broadcaster NHK aired this week showed that 49 percent didn't understand the proposed changes very well or at all. Fifty percent did not approve of Japan's expanded military role in the new U.S.-Japan defense guidelines.
"The Japanese people should be proud of Article 9," said labor union official Yuri Nagao, 59, one of hundreds of women marching through an upscale Tokyo shopping area to protest. "We cannot accept the 'war legislation'."
The new legislation would allow Japan to exercise the minimum force necessary if a country with close ties to Tokyo was attacked and certain conditions were met.
It would also allow Japan's military to provide logistics support to foreign forces operating in line with the U.N. charter, without 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.
(Additional reporting by Hyun Oh in Tokyo, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Sohee Kim in Seoul; Editing by Michael Perry and Alex Richardson)