TOKYO - Japan took a historic step away from its post-war pacifism on Tuesday by ending a ban that has kept the military from fighting abroad since 1945 - a victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but a move that has riled China and worries many Japanese voters.
The change, the most dramatic shift in defence policy since Japan set up its post-war armed forces exactly 60 years ago, will significantly widen Japan's military options by ending the ban on exercising "collective self-defence", or aiding a friendly country under attack.
Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, speaking to reporters outside the prime minister's office, said Abe's cabinet had adopted a resolution adopting the shift, which also relaxes limits on activities in UN-led peace-keeping operations and"grey zone" incidents short of full-scale war.
Long constrained by the pacifist post-war constitution, Japan's armed forces will become more aligned with the militaries of other advanced nations, but the government will likely be wary of putting boots on the ground in multilateral operations such as the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
The new policy is angering an increasingly assertive China, whose ties with Japan have frayed due to a maritime row, mistrust and the legacy of Japan's past military aggression. "China opposes the Japanese fabricating the China threat to promote its domestic political agenda," Chinese Foreign Ministery spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference in Beijing. "We demand that Japan respect the reasonable security concerns of its Asian neighbours and prudently handle the relevant matter."
The shift, however, will be welcomed by Washington, which has long urged Tokyo to become a more equal alliance partner, and by Southeast Asia nations that also have rows with China Japanese conservatives say the constitution's war-renouncing Article 9 has excessively limited Japan's ability to defend itself and that a changing regional power balance, including a rising China, means Japan's policies must be more flexible.
"Conservative governments have pushed the envelope hard and often to get the public to agree to a more elastic interpretation of article 9. Abe is taking a bigger leap and getting away with it, thanks to the Chinese," said Columbia University political sience professor Gerry Curtis.
Abe, who took office in 2012 promising to revive Japan's economy and bolster its security posture, has pushed for the change - which revises a longstanding government interpretation of the charter - despite wariness among Japanese voters.
Some voters worry about entanglement in foreign wars and others are angry at what they see as a gutting of Article 9 by ignoring formal amendment procedures. The charter has never been revised since it was adopted after Japan's 1945 defeat.
On Sunday, a man set himself on fire near a busy Tokyo intersection - a rare form of protest in Japan - after speaking out against Abe's re-interpretation of Article 9.
Around 2,000 protesters, including pensioners, housewives and trade unionists, marched near the premier's office on Tuesday carrying banners and shouting, "Don't destroy Article 9"and "We're against war". "I'm against the right of collective-self defence, but more importantly, I'm against the way Abe is pushing this change through," said 21-year-old university student Misa Machimura.