As debate rages in the Lower House over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s contentious security bills, lawmakers have identified one question as key: Would the Self-Defense Forces be allowed to use force on another nation’s territory in support of the U.S. military?

Under the pacifist Constitution, Japan has long upheld a self-imposed rule: that it must only defend its own country. Armed units of the SDF should never be deployed to use force overseas because it would exceed the “minimum necessary self-defense” allowed under the postwar Constitution.

Recent Diet sessions have heard Abe insist repeatedly he will stay within this limitation, which until now has been understood to restrict the activities of the SDF to within the Japanese land mass and the surrounding maritime area.

But this apparently contradicts Abe’s new bills to allow Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense, or the right to come to the aid of an ally under attack.

Under the bills, the SDF would be allowed to attack any country that has assaulted a key ally, which is taken to mean the United States.

Opposition lawmakers say it is fully possible that such military operations would take place on foreign turf or in another nation’s territorial waters, rather than on Japanese territory or in international waters.

The government says so far there have been 15 cases of a country reporting its exercise of the right of collective self-defense to the United Nations. Almost all of them involved military operations on foreign ground.

“The key part of Japan’s pacifism is not to use force overseas. But this time a loophole would be created,” Democratic Party of Japan President Katsuya Okada argued on Wednesday during a debate in the Lower House.

The use of the right of collective self-defense has been long considered prohibited under the war-renouncing Constitution.

But Abe has decided to change that, saying Japan should be allowed to help U.S. military forces and, in so doing, bolster the Japan-U.S. military alliance.

Abe also argued Japan would never take part in a multinational force like those in the 1991 Gulf War and 2003 Iraq War because, even under his bills the rule prohibiting Japan from deploying SDF troops on a foreign territory would remain.

“It’s clear we can’t get on land (of a foreign country) to launch an attack or stage a large-scale aerial bombing within the framework of ‘the minimum necessary’ level,” Abe said at a Lower House session on Thursday.

But he also argued there might be “some exceptions” to deploying forces to a foreign territory, fueling anxiety by opposition lawmakers — and speculation as to what he means.

Abe said one such exception would be Japan’s participation in a mine-sweeping operation in the waters of a nation such as Iran, which encompass much of the Strait of Hormuz. This would be allowed, he said, because such an operation is “passive and rather limited.” About 80 percent of oil exports to Japan pass through the strait.

But Abe failed to give a clear answer when pressed on whether a mine-sweeping operation in the South China Sea would be another “exception.” He said only that unlike in the Strait of Hormuz, oil tankers would be able to take a detour to reach Japan.

According to the bills, Japan would be allowed to use the right of collective self-defense only when three requirements are met: when there is clear danger to the nation’s survival, in the face of a threat that could “fundamentally overturn” people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness; when there are no alternative means; and when the use of force can be limited to the minimum necessary level.

“Theoretically, it is possible” only if the three requirements are met, Abe said.

“But that’s an armchair theory. Right now the Strait of Hormuz is the only case I have in mind,” Abe said.

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