By Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's government should focus on economic recovery and respect a decades-old pacifist defense policy, the junior coalition partner of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party said on Tuesday, in a bid to rein in Abe's security agenda.
The hawkish Abe returned to power for a rare second term in December, pledging to bolster the military to cope with what Japan sees as an increasingly threatening security environment, including an assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea.
A panel of security experts assembled by Abe is set to urge Japan to lift its self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense, or aiding an ally under attack. The report will be followed by debate within the ruling bloc.
Proponents say lifting the ban would free up the Japanese military to work more closely with the armed forces of the United States and other allies, while critics say it would make Japan more likely to get involved in overseas armed conflicts.
"As for the issue of collective self-defense, we are not necessarily in a situation where the people's lives and property would be threatened if Japan did not scramble to take some emergency steps," New Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi told Reuters in an interview.
"Beating deflation and economic recovery are our top priority ... The most important thing is to promote and carry out policy steps with high priority. We would not set them aside to tackle other issues first."
The lifting of the ban would mark a major turning point for Japan's post-war security policy. Since its World War Two defeat in 1945, Tokyo has been upholding exclusively defensive security posture and its military has not engaged in any combat.
New Komeito's stance on the issue is critical as Abe's ruling bloc would fall short of a majority in parliament's upper chamber without the support of its junior partner.
A former lawyer, Yamaguchi has the hard job of finding common ground between his party, seen as peace-oriented and friendly to small business, and the far bigger LDP, which has close ties to big business and some security hawks in its ranks.
For decades, Japan has taken the position that while it has the right of collective self-defense, actually exercising the right exceeds what is allowed by the U.S.-drafted, post-war constitution.
While acknowledging politicians' responsibility to respond to the toughening security environment in the region, Yamaguchi said his party's stance was based on the historical interpretation of the constitution.
"We stand firm on the point that we should conduct international coordination, cooperation and contribution, while giving heed to the successive governments' basic policy," he said.
"The governments have held a stance that the spirit of the constitution is that Japan does not use force overseas. The Self-Defense Forces have been used for humanitarian aid or disaster relief. Any attempts or consideration should be the extension of that stance and within that boundary."
In August, Abe put career diplomat and international law specialist Ichiro Komatsu in charge of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, a constitutional watchdog, in a move widely seen as paving the way to lifting the ban by changing the interpretation of the constitution.
But opinion polls show those opposed to letting Japan exercise the right of collective self-defense outnumber those in favor.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)