TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a review of legal limits on the military's ability to fight overseas on Thursday, signalling a potential landmark change in a security policy long constrained by the pacifist, post-war constitution.
Seeking to address concerns among Asian neighbours such as rival China as well as wary Japanese voters, the conservative Japanese leader also pledged that Japan would stick to a peaceful path and not again become a "country that wages war".
"Japan has walked the path of a peaceful country for nearly 70 years since the end of World War Two. That path will not change. But we cannot protect our peaceful lives simply by repeating that we are a peaceful country. Our peaceful lives may suddenly confront a crisis. Can anyone say that won't happen," Abe said at a nationally televised news conference.
"I think that we, the government, must confront this reality head on. It is necessary to deepen cooperation with other countries so that we can seamlessly ... cope with any situation to protect our peaceful lives."
Abe, pointing to growing tensions due to China's increasing assertiveness and North Korea's nuclear threat, called for a review of a decades-old interpretation of the constitution that has banned Japan from exercising its right of collective self-defence, or deploying its military to aid friendly countries under attack.
A lifting of the ban would be welcome to Japan's ally the United States, but would likely draw criticism from China, whose ties with Tokyo have been strained by a territorial row and the legacy of Japan's past aggression.
Abe also said Japan should strengthen its ability to respond to so-called "grey zone" incidents - low intensity conflicts that fall short of a full-scale attack. Concerns about such clashes have increased due to the tense feud between China and Japan over tiny disputed islands in the East China Sea.
But Abe said the government would not adopt a recommendation by his private advisers that Japan also lift its ban on taking part in U.N.-led collective security operations, in which nations join together to propel an aggressor against one state.
In their report issued earlier, Abe's advisers urged sweeping changes in a security policy long based on the principle that Japan has the right to defend itself with the minimum force necessary, but that combat abroad exceeds the limit imposed by the constitution's pacifist Article 9.
Critics say the proposed changes would gut Article 9 and are a stealth attack on the constitution that would skirt l amendment procedures that would be tougher politically.
The constitution has never been formally revised since its adoption in 1947, although successive governments have stretched its limits, which if taken literally ban the maintenance of any armed forces at all.
Abe, who took office for a rare second term in 2012, has made clear his desire to loosen the limits of the U.S.-drafted charter long considered overly restrictive by conservatives.
Abe's handpicked advisers said Japan's increasingly tough security environment meant the nation could not defend itself fully under the current interpretation of the constitution.
"We have reached a situation in which we cannot sufficiently maintain our country's peace and security or realise peace and prosperity of the region and international society under the current interpretation of the constitution," report said.
Abe said if the review concluded a new interpretation of the constitution was needed, he would like to embody the change in a cabinet resolution followed by revisions to relevant laws.
But doubts remain about how far and how quickly Abe can proceed. His Liberal Democratic Party's junior partner, the New Komeito, is wary, some in the LDP are also cautious, voters are divided and the LDP's deputy leader is worried about the impact on local polls this year and next.
Critics say even small changes would open the door to more drastic moves later. "Considering the nature of collective self-defence, to say it would be 'limited' is impossible," said Kyouji Yanagisawa, a former defence official who worked for Abe during his first 2006-2007 term as premier.
The advisers cited examples of actions Japan should be able to take. Among them were protecting a U.S. warship under attack in waters near Japan; mine-sweeping in sea-lanes in a conflict zone; and intercepting a ballistic missile headed for America.
They also recommended legal changes to allow action in other cases where the military has been constrained by legal concerns, such as rescuing Japanese overseas and using weapons in U.N. peace-keeping operations.
Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko in Tokyo, Megha Rajagopalan in Beijing and Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Nick Macfie and Simon Cameron-Moore