Japan on Tuesday announced a reinterpretation of its pacifist post-World War II Constitution that allows the country's military to help defend the United States and other allies.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the decision by the Cabinet to adjust the interpretation from one that limited the armed forces to defending Japan was necessary because of regional changes. The decision allows Japan's forces to help protect U.S. ships that may come under attack in nearby waters, Abe said.
"This will be a deterrent," he said during a news conference. "The basic thinking on how the constitution is presently interpreted will not change because of the Cabinet decision that was made."
Any move that could be interpreted as remilitarizing Japan may provoke unease in neighboring countries, where memories of Tokyo's World War II-era aggression and occupations remain fresh. Abe's recent visit to a shrine that memorializes some war criminals has sparked protests from China, and suggestions from right-wingers in Japan that the country revisit a 1993 official statement on wartime "comfort women" has upset South Koreans.
But regional dynamics are changing, and China's economic rise and increasing military capabilities are causing concern in Tokyo and other Asian capitals. Tokyo has been sparring with Beijing over some uninhabited islets long administered by Japan but claimed by both countries.
In recent years, Chinese fishing boats and government vessels have been probing the waters near the islets, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, playing cat and mouse with Japan's coast guard. Both countries have sent aircraft to the area.
Meanwhile, China has been increasingly asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea, upsetting neighbors Vietnam and the Philippines.
China expressed concern Tuesday about the constitutional reinterpretation.
"People cannot but question whether Japan will change the peaceful development path it has long stuck to since the end of WWII," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily briefing.
South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kwang-il said, "The South Korean government views it as a significant revision to the defense and security policy under the postwar peace constitution, and is paying a sharp attention to it," the Associated Press reported.
Some experts described the change as symbolically important to Japan's role in regional security.
"Realistically, it remains to be seen because we don't know how it's going to be implemented," said James E. Auer, director of the Nashville-based James E. Auer U.S.-Japan Center. "China respects power."
Nagano is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Julie Makinen in Beijing contributed to this report.