Japan's Cabinet is set to approve Friday new defense guidelines that will allow the nation's troops to participate more actively in the international arena in the face of regional tensions and in response to such threats as terrorism.
The outline, which will be the framework for the nation's defense policy for the next 10 years, highlights North Korea as a significant destabilizing factor in East Asia, names China as a potential threat, and opens the possibility of Japan relaxing its ban on arms exports.
Coming less than a year after Japanese forces were sent to Iraq on their first mission since World War II to a nation where armed conflict was still continuing, the guidelines mark another step away from Japan's exclusively defense-oriented security policy of the past.
The change, say analysts, has been prompted by increased militarization in Japan's neighborhood, the desire of Washington for greater help in its defense partnership with Japan, and a calculation by Tokyo that it could advance foreign policy aims better if it could bring some military contributions - not just dollar diplomacy - to the table.
While Japan has been "trying to strengthen its regional preparedness in the last few years, the government has also emphasized that the eventual aim is to integrate ... states like China and North Korea into the circle [of nations that] uphold liberal values," says Hiromi Nagata, an expert on Japanese security policy at the University of London.
The review marks only the second overhaul of Japan's defense policy since the end of the cold war, and comes as the Japanese Cabinet decided Thursday to extend the deployment of the nation's Self-Defense Forces to Iraq by another year. The decision was reached despite polls showing public opposition to the move at around 65 percent.
Ms. Nagata says the public may come to support the extension of the humanitarian mission in the future in the same manner that Japanese participation in UN peacekeeping operations was gradually accepted.
Earlier plans to extend the SDF mission in Iraq included provisions to increase the number of troops beyond the almost 600 now stationed in Samawah, Iraq. This idea now appears to have been quietly abandoned in the face of public opposition, and the government plans to revise the basic plan for the deployment to provide leeway for the possibility of an early withdrawal. The security situation may become more difficult after March when the Dutch forces who provide armed protection for the Japanese are set to leave Iraq.
The new guidelines show that Japan is eager to play a more active role in maintaining international security, but also show that tight government finances may thwart the newfound ambitions.
The defense budget over the next five years will be cut for the first time, by 3.6 percent from the last five year period to about $229 billion. The Defense Agency and the Finance Ministry ended late Wednesday a two-month dispute on what the appropriate number of ground troops for Japan should be, eventually agreeing to reduce the current number by 5,000 to 155,000.
"We have a very strict financial situation," a Defense Agency spokesman said after the negotiations. "My judgment is that the new basic defense plan means that we will have to be flexible in how we respond to various threats."
Japan clearly sees China as one of those threats. The government took a tough stance when a Chinese sub strayed into Japanese waters last month, and eventually extracted a rare apology from Chinese authorities over the event. The new guidelines stress the need to monitor any expansion of Chinese military naval activity.
The outline also provides scope for the relaxation of arms exports, a break from a policy that has stood since 1976, and which, if taken too far, may meet stiff opposition from a Buddhist-backed party in Japan's ruling coalition.
Local media have reported that the new guidelines include plans to research and develop a long-range missile, and that the US and Japan stand poised to sign next year an agreement on licensing the manufacturing of a missile system that could be deployed by mid-2008.
With Pyongyang lobbing a ballistic missile over Japan in 1998 and remaining defiant over its nuclear weapons program, the Japanese government has come to realize that "to possess a reliable defensive military force, that defensive military force may have to include some types of offensive weapons," says Matake Kamiya, a professor of international relations at the National Defense Academy of Japan.
Japan is still officially constrained by a constitution that prohibits the use of force to settle international disputes. Top US officials such as Secretary of State Colin Powell have increased pressure on Japan to review the war-renouncing article and most observers expect it to be amended soon to at least allow Japan the right to participate in collective defense actions with other countries.
Even so, "the vast majority of Japanese people still strongly desire to hold onto the spirit of pacifism" that dominated the nation's defense policy after World War II, says Mr. Kamiya. But now they think that to keep the peace, Japan needs to "shift from passive pacifism to proactive pacifism."