In a shift away from its post-World War II pacifism, Japan's government overhauled its defense guidelines yesterday, easing an arms exports ban and singling out North Korea and China as security threats.
The plan, approved in a morning Cabinet meeting, also called for Japan to participate in international peacekeeping missions and underscored Tokyo's efforts to play a global security role that better matches its economic strength.
It also fit with Japan's decade-long effort to increase security cooperation with the US. The pro-US government on Thursday approved a one-year extension of the military's humanitarian mission in Iraq.
The government on Friday eased its longtime ban on arms exports to allow it to develop a missile defense program with the US. The new guidelines also cited the threats posed by North Korean missiles, China's military buildup and terrorism.
"This is about ensuring security and dealing with new threats as the times change," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters.
Acknowledging the budget pressures Japan will face as its population rapidly ages, however, the guidelines call for cutting the number of ground forces and tanks. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on Thursday approved a 3.7 percent cut in defense spending.
Pyongyang became one of Tokyo's biggest security worries after it test-fired a long-range ballistic missile over Japan in 1998, prompting Tokyo to begin researching missile defense. Pyongyang also has an active nuclear weapons development program.
Japan has maintained an arms export ban since 1976. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said, however, that the government would make exceptions to pursue missile defense with Washington because of the contribution this would make to the Japan-US security alliance and Japan's own national security.
Critics have raised concerns about the slow erosion to the pacifist society Japan has built since it adopted its current war-renouncing constitution after World War II.
The opposition Social Democratic Party, one of the smallest parties in Parliament, criticized the government for removing self-imposed controls on military development.
"This plan reorganizes and strengthens the military around the pillars of modernization and greater power," the party said in a statement.
The guidelines also vowed to maintain the current policy of not possessing nuclear weapons, not making them and not allowing them into Japan, which was the only country to have been attacked with nuclear weapons, in 1945.
The guidelines underscore Japan's willingness to participate in peacekeeping, but troops will still have to adhere to the constitutional ban on using force to resolve international disputes. In more dangerous areas, as in Iraq, they will likely be limited to humanitarian work while leaving policing to other countries.
The new defense outline, which covers the nine years after 2005, also singles out China as a security concern, pointing out that Beijing has expanded the range of its military activities at sea and has been modernizing its naval and air force.
Hosoda played down the reference, however.
``It does not mean that we consider China a threat,'' Hosoda said at a news conference.