Tokyo: Japan is poised for a historic shift in its defence policy by ending a ban that has kept the military from fighting abroad since World War Two, a major step away from post-war pacifism and a big political victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The change will significantly widen Japan`s military options by ending the ban on exercising "collective self-defense", or aiding a friendly country under attack. It will also relax limits on activities in UN-led peace-keeping operations and "grey zone" incidents short of full-scale war, according to a draft government proposal made available to reporters.
For now, however, Japan is likely to remain wary of putting boots on the ground in future multilateral operations such as the 1990-1991 Gulf War or the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, activities Abe himself has ruled out.
The change will likely rile an increasingly assertive China, whose ties with Japan have chilled due to a maritime row, mutual mistrust and the legacy of Japan`s past military aggression, but will be welcomed by Tokyo`s ally Washington, which has long urged Japan to become a more equal partner in the alliance.
Abe`s cabinet is expected to adopt as early as Tuesday a resolution revising a long-standing interpretation of the US-drafted constitution to lift the ban after his ruling party finalises an agreement with its junior partner.
Legal revisions to implement the change must be approved by parliament and restrictions could be imposed in the process.
"If this gets through the Japanese political system it would be the most significant change in Japan`s defense policy since the Self-Defense Forces were established in 1954," said Alan Dupont, a professor of international security at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
Since its defeat in 1945, Japan`s military has not engaged in combat. While successive governments have stretched the limits of the US-drafted pacifist charter not only to allow the existence of a standing military but also to permit non-combat missions abroad, its armed forces are still far more constrained legally than those in other countries.
Conservatives say the charter`s war-renouncing Article 9 has excessively restricted Japan`s ability to defend itself and that a changing regional power balance including a rising China means Japan`s security policies must be more flexible.
Abe, whose first term as premier ended when he abruptly quit in 2007, returned in triumph in December 2012 pledging to revive Japan`s stagnant economy and bolster its global security clout. He has pushed for the change despite surveys showing voters are divided and wary.
"In my view, Japan is finally catching up with the global standard of security," said former Japanese diplomat Kunihiko Miyake. "Japan can now do as every other United Nations member under the UN charter."