TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signalled his hope on Tuesday for an early agreement with his ruling party's dovish junior partner on easing constitutional curbs that have kept Japan's military from fighting abroad since World War Two.
An agreement with the smaller party, the New Komeito, would be a big step toward achieving Abe's goal of loosening the limits of the post-war, pacifist constitution.
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party presented to its partner a new cabinet proposal to change a decades-old interpretation of the constitution that has banned the exercise of collective self-defence - militarily aiding a friendly country under attack. "We will press ahead thoroughly and intensively with discussions on a security-related legal framework between the ruling parties," Abe told a news conference. "And as responsible ruling parties that protect people's lives and livelihood, we will make a decision firmly when the time comes." The New Komeito has been wary of dropping the ban, but agreed this month to discuss a compromise proposal.
The parties are due to discuss the proposal on Friday, but New Komeito's deputy chief, Kazuo Kitagawa, told reporters it would be difficult to reach a broad agreement by then. Japanese media say a cabinet resolution could come as early as next week.
The United States and some Southeast Asian countries would welcome the change, a major shift in Japan's post-war security policy. Japan's military has never engaged in combat since its defeat in World War Two.
But China, locked in disputes with Japan over territory and wartime history, would almost certainly denounce it as a sign that Tokyo is ramping up regional tensions.
Benigno Aquino, the president of the Philippines - which has its own feud with China in the South China Sea - said after meeting Abe that Manila welcomed Japan's more assertive policy. "We believe that nations of goodwill can only benefit if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others, and is allowed the wherewithal to come to the aid of those in need, especially in the area of collective self-defence," Aquino told a news conference alongside Abe.
The Philippines, he said, had suffered greatly during World War Two, but post-war ties with Tokyo were marked by "trust and unfailing support". "...Japan has acted with compassion and in accordance with international law and has more actively and more positively engaged the region and the world," he told reporters.
Critics of Abe's push say dropping the ban would overturn the constitution's Article 9 renouncing war.
Conservatives counter that the current interpretation has hindered Japan's ability to defend itself and that change is vital to cope with security threats, including from an increasingly assertive China and a volatile North Korea.