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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a historic stride Thursday toward his long-held ambition of transforming Japan’s pacifist defense policy, ordering the ruling parties to launch talks on removing the self-imposed ban on using the right to collective self-defense.

Abe’s crusade to remove it has fanned fears and anxieties among critics at home and abroad who believe the move is the first step toward scrapping the pacifist stance that has guided Japan under the postwar Constitution.

“Japan would be allowed to become a warring party even if it is not directly attacked. This would be a very big change in value judgment” for the Japanese government, said Miho Aoi, a law professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.

Article 9 of the Constitution states that Japan will “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

Removing this limitation would shift policy considerably when it comes to the use of military force, Aoi said.

Under the right to collective self-defense, Japan would be able to counter an armed attack on a foreign nation with which it has “close ties” — even if Japan itself is not directly attacked.

For decades, the government has maintained that exercising this right is prohibited under Article 9, which limits the use of force to the “minimum necessary” to defend one country only — Japan.

Previous Cabinets have argued that Article 9 does not deny Japan the right to wage war if attacked, but ruled out using collective self-defense to come to the aid of another country.

Abe is expected to try to allay the public by setting strict conditions under which the government could exercise the right.

But on May 2, Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba said in Washington that Japan’s right to use collective self-defense “will be very limited at the initial stage” but “can be expanded further,” if necessary.

Ishiba, the No. 2 man in the party after Abe, did not elaborate. But his comment has fueled concerns that Abe may be trying to gradually undercut Article 9 by expanding the Self-Defense Forces’ operations overseas.

Meanwhile, military experts and many SDF officers also point out that it is becoming increasingly difficult for one country to defend itself without alliances with other countries.

For example, state-of-the-art weapons and defense systems have become more advanced and expensive, requiring regular and closer joint development, operations and information-sharing among allied countries.

Japan and the U.S. jointly operate anti-ballistic missile defense systems to monitor and intercept missiles that could be fired by North Korea.

But without the right to collective self-defense, a Japanese commander would not be allowed to shoot down a North Korean ballistic missile flying toward an American territory like Guam. If Japan refuses to respond in such a scenario, defense officials fear it would jeopardize the Japan-U.S. military alliance.

“The U.S. may expect us to shoot down a missile (flying toward an American territory), but we actually won’t. Such a situation could actually happen,” said retired Vice Adm. Yoji Koda of the Maritime Self-Defense Force.

“We would be able to fire one with no hesitation” if Japan were allowed to use the right to collective self-defense, he said.

The possibility of a military clash between China and Japan has become more likely than ever, as the two countries test each other over the disputed Senkakus Islands in the East China Sea.

Under the Japan-U.S. security treaty, the U.S. would be obliged to help Japan defend the islets, known as Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, if a military conflict erupted over them.

Without the right to collective self-defense, an SDF ship would not be allowed to defend a U.S. naval ship being attacked by a third country on the high seas unless the Japanese ship was directly attacked.

If Japan avoided using military force to defend a U.S. ship during a joint operation, Japan would likewise lose the trust of Washington, bringing an end to the Japan-U.S. military alliance, experts warned.

“What China is doing against Vietnam and the Philippines right now in the South China Sea could take place in the East China Sea, too,” said former Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto, now a professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo, referring to Beijing’s claims on two other sets of disputed islands.

One strange thing about these debates on the right of collective self-defense is that Japan is the only country in the world that is struggling with such legal and technical issues after two atomic bombs put an end to the war.

Article 51 of the United Nations Charter bestows all member states the right of collective self-defense and no country questions its legitimacy. Japan has been a very peaceful state and has fought in no wars since World War II ended 69 years ago. Nonetheless, many people at home and abroad feel uncomfortable about Abe’s push to legalize collective self-defense. This can be at least partially attributed to his international reputation as a potentially dangerous nationalist intent on revising the history of Japan’s aggression in the 1930s and ’40s under state Shinto.

Mizuho Aoki and Ayako Mie contributed to this report

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