As Japan seeks to beef up its defenses in response to North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear and missile program, its long-held policy of sticking to a strictly self-defensive security posture will likely come under close scrutiny in 2018.

In particular, a plan to acquire long-range cruise missiles capable of striking North Korea could set off heated debate in the Diet next year, with critics viewing it as the latest move by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to loosen postwar security constraints imposed under the pacifist Constitution.

The plan was announced earlier this month as part of the ¥5.19 trillion ($45.8 billion) draft defense budget for the next fiscal year. The government has earmarked ¥2.19 billion to introduce air-launched cruise missiles with a range of up to 900 km.

The government has repeatedly denied any intention to possess the ability to strike foreign military bases, saying that Japan leaves that role to the United States, its defense ally.

“It is the government’s responsibility to prepare the appropriate equipment for Self-Defense Forces personnel so that they can engage in missions in safer conditions … These ‘stand-off’ missiles will be introduced purely for the purpose of defending our country,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said earlier this month.

According to the Defense Ministry, the missiles, which can be launched from outside the range of an enemy’s missile defense system, will be used in part to strike enemy ships and protect Aegis destroyers providing defense against ballistic missiles.

Ministry officials also insisted that the possession of the missiles in itself would not establish strike capability, given that Japan does not have other weapons systems to precisely locate and hit targets while assessing the impact of the attack inside enemy territories.

But some experts have taken the move quite differently.

“It is apparently the first step toward acquiring the ability to strike enemy bases,” Hideki Uemura, a professor at Ryutsu Keizai University, said.

“Indeed, Japan would not be able to carry out strike operations just by buying missiles. But it may enhance its radars and other abilities further down the road and, when the pieces are put together, they will eventually form a strike capability,” the expert on security issues said.

The government, in fact, has maintained the position for decades that hitting foreign bases to counter an imminent attack by missiles and other threats is permitted under the Constitution, as long as it can be considered a self-defense measure.

At the same time, it has prohibited the SDF from possessing armaments deemed to be highly offensive under its “exclusively defense-oriented policy,” often citing intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range strategic bombers and attack aircraft carriers as examples. Long-range cruise missiles had also been the kind of weapons that Japan had opted not to possess.

But the Abe government is likely to have judged it time to explore the possession of strike capability, expecting the public response to be softer against Japan’s defense buildup amid the escalating North Korean threat. A major victory by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in the Oct. 22 general election may have also cleared the way, Uemura said.

Whether the government’s plan will be supported widely by the public remains to be seen, with opposition parties turning up the heat on the issue ahead of the ordinary Diet session to be convened in January.

Akira Nagatsuma, acting leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force in the House of Representatives, told reporters earlier, “How can the government explain that the plan is compatible with its repeated pledges made in the past that the SDF will not possess strike capability?”

Opposition parties may also grill the government over the cost-effectiveness of Japan’s ballistic missile defense, in which the country has already invested around ¥2 trillion and plans to install two new batteries of the U.S.-made land-based Aegis missile defense system, each with a price tag of about ¥100 billion.

“The government should stop its massive military expansion that shows no end, including the plan to acquire long-range cruise missiles,” Keiji Kokuta, Diet affairs chief of the Japanese Communist Party, said.

Akira Kato, an international politics professor at J. F. Oberlin University, expressed doubts over the expansion of the missile defense system, saying there are no guarantees that adding another layer of protection would ensure a “100 percent success rate” in interceptions.

“The role of missile defense systems is, in fact, to make the enemy reluctant to shoot missiles and hesitate over the probabilities of its missiles hitting the target and whether it is worth carrying out the attack at the risk of suffering massive retaliation. It’s more a tool for those kinds of probability games,” he said.

Still, a Defense Ministry source appeared confident that the government would be able to argue effectively against the opposition over the controversial defense plans, saying, “Is it the right thing, then, to just sit back and watch things go by in this (tough) security situation?”

Japan’s defense buildup drive could continue to get a push from the uncertain prospects surrounding North Korea, with U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration saying it is keeping all options — including military action — on the table in dealing with the defiant country.

North Korea claimed late November it successfully tested its “most powerful” intercontinental ballistic missile yet, capable of hitting anywhere in the United States with a nuclear warhead. But questions hang over whether Pyongyang has really mastered the technologies for miniaturizing warheads and ensuring missiles’ re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, said Noboru Yamaguchi, a security expert at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

“It is difficult to predict what will happen from now on. … We should not completely discount what North Korea says but it is also not wise to set our blood boiling in response to its provocations. Anyway, we are in a quite critical phase,” Yamaguchi said.

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