By Osamu Tsukimori
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan is preparing to send up to 1,000 troops as well as naval vessels and aircraft to the Philippines to help with disaster relief following Typhoon Haiyan, in what could be Tokyo's biggest postwar military deployment.
The significantly expanded mission comes as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to ease limits on the military imposed by Japan's postwar, pacifist constitution, and cope with the challenges of China's growing influence in Asia.
Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters Japan would send a maximum 1,000 soldiers from the Self-Defence Forces to the Philippines, where desperate typhoon survivors have struggled to get food, water and medicine nearly a week after the disaster.
A Ministry of Defence official said the government was considering sending three naval vessels. Transport helicopters and aircraft would also be sent, the Asahi newspaper and Jiji news agency said.
The mission could be bigger than Japan's relief efforts after the 2004 tsunami devastated Indonesia's Aceh province.
Japan has already donated $10 million in aid to the Philippines and sent a 25-strong emergency medical relief team as well as 50 troops.
Japan invaded the Philippines in World War Two and scattered fighting continued until Tokyo's surrender in 1945. But Philippine officials have said their nation does not share the concerns of others in Asia, notably China and South Korea, about Japan's military past.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said earlier this week that the decision to send troops followed a request from Manila.
The Philippines, like Japan a strong ally of the United States, has also said it views Japan as a counterweight to the increasing regional role of China.
CHINA AID IN SPOTLIGHT
In an effort to counter-balance China's growing regional clout, Abe has been working to strengthen ties with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since he took office last December. Next month he will host a summit with ASEAN marking the 40th anniversary of friendly ties.
Several ASEAN countries including the Philippines are, like Japan, engaged in maritime disputes with China.
China has promised the Philippines $100,000 in government aid along with another $100,000 through the Chinese Red Cross, a relatively small amount that some experts have said reflected its strained ties with Manila over the disputed South China Sea.
Also putting China's contribution under scrutiny, the USS George Washington aircraft carrier is due to arrive in the Philippines on Thursday evening, along with other U.S. naval ships. The carrier has 5,000 sailors and more than 80 aircraft on board.
Disaster relief activities both at home and abroad by the Self-Defense Forces have gone a long way to improve the military's domestic image.
About 1,000 soldiers and other personnel took part in relief efforts in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, and troops went to Haiti following a devastating earthquake in 2010.
Expanding such non-combat activities is a key part of Abe's campaign for a more proactive role for the military overseas.
Abe is pushing for lifting a self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense, or aiding an ally under attack, a much more controversial move. He has pledged 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.
(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg. Editing by William Mallard and Dean Yates)