Japan is putting the final touches on a sweeping overhaul of its defense policy that will give its armed forces a greater role globally and could upset neighbors like China and North Korea.
The review of the National Defense Program Outline, the first since 1995, and a related five-year defense program are expected to be approved by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s cabinet next week, unless disagreements over details causes a delay.
Defense Minister Yoshinori Ono said at a news conference Friday that he was hoping for approval by the cabinet at its next meeting on Dec. 7.
The overhaul, which will include steps to improve defenses against new threats like terrorism and missile attacks, is likely to imply a shift away from Japan’s purely defensive security policy.
Separately, The Yomiuri Shimbun reported Friday that Japan would study developing its first long-range surface-to-surface missile. Such missiles could effectively end Japan’s self-imposed ban on offensive weapons.
The Yomiuri Shimbun, which quoted anonymous defense officials, said Japan’s concern was North Korean spy vessels and Chinese Navy ships that have been moving more frequently in seas near Japan.
The newspaper said defense officials planned to study the new missile not to attack other countries but “as a measure to counter a possible invasion on a remote island several hundred kilometers away from mainland Japan.”
Two months ago, however, an expert panel recommended that Japan acquire the ability to attack foreign bases. The advisory panel to the prime minister said Japan should consider whether to acquire the capability to carry out pre-emptive strikes, a sign of a possible departure from a purely defensive strategy.
The panel’s suggestion reflected strong concerns over a ballistic missile threat from North Korea.
North Korea shocked Japan when it test-fired a ballistic missile that passed over Japan in 1998. And the 2005-2009 Japanese defense plan will include provisions for starting research on a long-range, ground-to-ground missile, the Yomiuri report said.
Japan’s Constitution renounces war and bans the maintenance of a standing army but has been interpreted as allowing a military for defense.
Such restrictions have been stretched in recent years, most recently with Japan’s dispatch of troops to Iraq on a reconstruction and humanitarian mission.
The chief cabinet secretary, Hiroyuki Hosoda, commented on the missile research. “I think it is an issue for consideration, but more discussion is needed on whether it is required imminently,” Hosoda told reporters when asked about such strike capabilities.
In what appeared to be an allusion to North Korea, he added: “If nuclear and missile issues of neighboring countries are resolved we would be able to sleep without fear. What is most important is to negotiate.”
Relations between Japan and China have been chilled by a number of disputes, including the intrusion of a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine into Japanese waters last month.
Japan and China are also at odds over a group of islands, which both claim as their own, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China.
The new defense policy has been delayed recently by disagreements between Japan’s Defense and Finance ministries, according to other news reports. Nihon Keizai, the prominent business daily, said the ministries were still at odds over a Finance Ministry proposal to reduce the number of ground troops to 140,000 from the current 160,000.