Japan's Parliament has passed a law authorizing the country's defense minister to order incoming missiles shot down without permission from the prime minister or the cabinet.
The new law is a response to concerns in Japan about threats from its immediate neighbors.
North Korea surprised Tokyo in 1998 when it launched a missile over Japan. Pyongyang now says it has nuclear weapons, and its nuclear program is the subject of multinational talks next week in Beijing.
The law passed Friday authorizes the defense minister to order Japan's Self Defense Forces to shoot down any incoming missile without having to get permission from the prime minister or the cabinet, effectively cutting Japan's reaction time.
Hiro Katsumata, a Japanese security expert from the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, says the law was not prompted solely by the threat from North Korea.
"The closer you get to the policymaking community in Tokyo, the more you become convinced that the main concern, in the security area, is not Pyongyang but Beijing in the long run. Obviously, [for] Tokyo and Beijing, the maritime boundary issue is one of the contentious issues," said Mr. Katsumata. "In the long run, the missile development on the part of Beijing will also have strong implications for Japanese security."
Japan's pacifist Constitution prohibits the use of force to settle international conflicts. Mr. Katsumata says Parliament's move reflects Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's more aggressive stance in foreign policy and defense issues.
Tokyo and Washington are working on a missile defense system that may be in use by 2007. On Tuesday, the United States agreed to let Japan manufacture Patriot surface-to-air systems that can intercept incoming missiles.