TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan is reviewing policies for its armed forces, constrained by a pacifist constitution for over 60 years, as the government confronts China's military rise and the potential decline of its U.S. protector in the region.
An advisory panel to Prime Minister Naoto Kan is expected to make recommendations soon for the first update in five years to the National Defence Programme Guideline (NDPG).
The panel, domestic media say, will urge changes to the exclusively defensive policy adopted after Japan's defeat in World War Two but stretched to allow the build up of a military that is bigger than Britain and even overseas missions.
Below are some questions and answers about the guideline and the challenges Kan -- whose Democratic Party (DPJ) took power last year pledging more equal ties with security ally Washington and improved relations with Asia -- faces over security.
No member of Japan's military has fired a shot in combat since World War Two. But many analysts say the pacifist constraints have been stretched to the limit, and some advocate a more realistic formal policy that recognises the changes.
The NDPG was last revised in 2004. It was to be updated in 2009 but delayed by a change of government.
The 2004 guideline made some changes but stuck to a focus on the U.S. alliance as the core of its security.
It also rejected a recommendation to acquire pre-emptive strike capability -- a sore subject for Asian neighbours with bitter memories of Japan's past militarism.
Since then, concerns over Beijing's military build-up have grown, as have worries about whether the U.S.-Japan alliance is fraying and Washington's commitment to the region is weakening.
At the same time, Japan -- set to cede its position as the world's No.2. economy to China -- is increasingly reliant on its giant neighbour for growth, requiring a delicate balancing act.
Article 9 of Japan's 1947 Constitution, drafted by U.S. Occupation forces, renounces the right to wage war to resolve international disputes and bans the maintenance of a military.
The article has been interpreted not only to permit the maintenance of armed forces for self-defence, but to allow overseas military activities such as the 2004 dispatch of troops on a non-combat mission to a de facto war zone in Iraq.
Japan in 1967 banned nuclear weapons in the country and set a blanket ban on arms exports, which was eased in 1983 and 2004.
Successive Japanese governments have also interpreted the constitution as prohibiting the exercise of Japan's right to collective self-defence, or aiding an ally under attack.
Japanese media reports say the panel will likely recommend beefing up the ability to respond to any nearby threats, including on the Korean peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait; considering lifting the ban on collective self-defence; and relaxing the arms export ban further to allow joint development with the United States and other allies, something Japan's defence industry wants.
It will also stress the importance of the U.S. alliance and suggest a review of the policy banning U.S vessels carrying nuclear arms from entering Japanese ports, the reports say.
The panel may also recommend more cooperation with other U.S. allies in the region such as South Korea and Australia.
Kan, if he keeps his job after a Sept. 14 DPJ leadership vote, will be putting top policy priority on keeping Japan's economic recovery on track and cutting public debt.
He is also committed to a deal with the United States to move the Marines' Futenma airbase to a less crowded part of the southern island of Okinawa. A feud over the base jolted the alliance when his predecessor pledged to try to move the base off the island, host to about half the U.S. forces in Japan.]
Doubts hang over how much political energy Kan can devote to broad defence matters, meaning controversial proposals may not gain traction.
Forging a unified DPJ security policy could also be tough, since the party's membership ranges from pro-U.S. security hawks to more dovish lawmakers who stress warmer ties with Asia.
(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)
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