By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan should change the interpretation of its constitution to allow its military to defend not only its ally, the United States, but also other countries whose interests are closely intertwined with Tokyo, a key security adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.
The proposed change would represent a further stretching of the limits of Japan's post-war, pacifist constitution and go beyond proposals that the country should only exercise its right of collective self-defense to aid forces of the United States, with which it has a formal alliance.
The right to exercise collective self-defense should be applied "to any country which is very close to Japan", Shinichi Kitaoka, who is a member of a panel preparing a report for Abe on the topic, told Reuters in an interview this week.
"In other words, if that country is heavily damaged and that might bring a serious threat to Japan, then this is a situation in which Japan may consider exercising the right of collective self-defense."
Coming to the defense of Southeast Asian countries, several of which - like Japan - are engaged in territorial disputes with China, could be one of the scenarios that the change could address, Kitaoka said.
Another example Kitaoka cited was a threat to sea lanes of vital interest to Japan.
"If this is an attack on a Japanese vessel, this belongs to our right of individual self defense. If this invites big confusion, then this will belong to collective security under the U.N. umbrella," he said.
"If U.S. vessels or Australian vessels or Indian vessels which are protecting this sea lane were attacked and this has a very big impact on Japan, then Japan has the right to cooperate with those countries and remove it (the threat)."
Abe has long advocated revising the interpretation of the 1947 U.S.-drafted constitution held by successive Japanese governments that says that Japan has the right to collective self-defense but should not exercise that right.
A panel appointed during Abe's first 2006-2007 term advocated lifting the ban in some specific cases, but he resigned over a political stalemate and ill health before the controversial change could be implemented.
This time, Abe appears determined to move ahead and has appointed a sympathetic bureaucrat to head the constitutional watchdog in charge of the interpretation.
But the junior partner in his Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition, the dovish New Komeito, is dragging its heels, so more drastic proposals may not win government approval.
The proposed shift is part of Abe's long-term agenda whose end point is revising the constitution's pacifist Article 9, adopted after Japan's defeat in World War Two and seen by conservative critics as hobbling its ability to defend itself as a "normal nation" in line with international practices.
Kitaoka, who is also head of a panel drafting Japan's first National Security Strategy to underpin a new U.S.-style National Security Council that will coordinate policies, said Japan should not shy away from U.N.-led peacekeeping missions that potentially could involve its soldiers in combat.
"It is wrong to remove all the possibilities of engaging in combat activities," Kitaoka said. Currently, Japanese military participation in peacekeeping operations are limited to areas where a cease-fire is in effect.
Kitaoka also said that a review of Japan's mid-term defense posture, also expected to be finalized next month, might recommend that Japan consider obtaining the capability to strike enemy bases overseas to bolster defense against missile attacks, such as from nearby North Korea.
The controversial step would further stretch the definition of Tokyo's "purely defensive" defense policy, although Kitaoka stressed any such capability - which experts say might involve cruise missiles - would only be used when an attack was imminent and not for "preemptive strikes".
"'Imminent attack' means there have been a lot of declarations from the adversary country on the attack, and if we find that the missile is directed at us and fueling has started, this is imminent and in this case, it is the same as an actual attack," he said.
Kitaoka rejected criticism that Japan's whittling away at constitutional limits on its military were making Article 9 meaningless. "Yes, you may argue that way. But the spirit will remain," he said.
"Japan will not have any weapons of mass destruction. Japan will not have weapons with long projection (capability) and Japan will limit the exercise of the right of collective self-defense to the minimum level."
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)