Are changes on horizon in Japan defense policy?

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Are changes on horizon in Japan defense policy?

Japan is reviewing policies for its armed forces, constrained by a pacifist constitution for over 60 years, as the government confronts China’s military rise and the potential decline of its U.S. protector in the region.

An advisory panel to Prime Minister Naoto Kan is expected to make recommendations soon for the first update in five years to the National Defense Program Guideline (NDPG). The panel, domestic media say, will urge changes to the exclusively defensive policy adopted after Japan’s defeat in World War II but stretched to allow the buildup of a military that is bigger than Britain.

Below are some questions and answers about the guideline and the challenges Kan - whose Democratic Party (DPJ) took power last year pledging more equal ties with security ally Washington and improved relations with Asia - faces over security.

Q. Why is the defense guideline being reviewed?

A. No member of Japan’s military has fired a shot in combat since World War II. But many analysts say the pacifist constraints have been stretched to the limit, and some advocate a more realistic formal policy that recognizes the changes.

The NDPG was last revised in 2004. It was to be updated in 2009 but delayed by a change of government.

The 2004 guideline made some changes but stuck to a focus on the U.S. as the core of its security.

It also rejected a recommendation to acquire pre-emptive strike capability - a sore subject for Asian neighbors with bitter memories of Japan’s past militarism.

Since then, concerns over Beijing’s military buildup have grown, as have worries about whether the U.S.-Japan alliance is fraying and Washington’s commitment to the region is weakening.

At the same time, Japan - set to cede its position as the world’s No.2. economy to China - is increasingly reliant on its giant neighbor for growth, requiring a delicate balancing act.

How constrained is Japan’s military?

Article 9 of Japan’s 1947 Constitution, drafted by U.S. Occupation forces, renounces the right to wage war to resolve international disputes and bans the maintenance of a military.

The article has been interpreted not only to permit the maintenance of armed forces for self-defense, but to allow overseas military activities such as the 2004 dispatch of troops on a noncombat mission to a de facto war zone in Iraq.

Japan in 1967 banned nuclear weapons in the country and set a blanket ban on arms exports, which was eased in 1983 and 2004.

Successive Japanese governments have also interpreted the constitution as prohibiting the exercise of Japan’s right to collective self-defense, or aiding an ally under attack.

What will the panel recommend?

Japanese media reports say the panel will likely recommend beefing up the ability to respond to any nearby threats, including on the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait; considering lifting the ban on collective self-defense; and relaxing the arms export ban further to allow joint development with the United States and other allies, something Japan’s defense industry wants.

It will also stress the importance of the U.S. alliance and suggest a review of the policy banning U.S. vessels carrying nuclear arms from entering Japanese ports, the reports say.

How will Kan respond?

Doubts hang over how much political energy Kan can devote to broad defense matters.

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