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Japan Outlines Constitution Change Impact

Japanese Ambassador to the Philippines Toshinao Urabe gestures as he answers questions from reporters after discussing Japan's new security policy during a forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, July 17, 2014.

Japan’s ambassador to the Philippines, Toshinao Urabe, says the proposed “reinterpretation” of Japan's pacifist constitution would allow it to help if a country it has a “close relationship” with is attacked.

This means it would help defend the U.S., which is its only mutual defense treaty ally. Urabe said under the treaty, Japan is not obligated to use force in helping. The reinterpretation would enable it to do so.

But Urabe told reporters at a forum in Manila Thursday that in the case of other countries like the Philippines, which he said Japan also has a close relationship with, it would “depend on the situation.” He said Japan is most concerned with protecting its nationals if they are in vulnerable security situations.

“But basically this is a policy to defend ourselves in various situations which were not conceived before. And I think it’s important to make necessary preparation to various security situations,” Urabe stated.

Urabe reiterated that Japan has no intention of building up troop presence around the world.

Territorial disputes

The Philippines and Japan are both having contentious territorial disputes with China over formations in the East China and South China Seas.

China said it has indisputable sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have claims there.

In the East China Sea, Japan and China have been at odds over islands called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China. In the past two years both sides have accused each other of harassment at sea and in the airspace above the islands.

Both bodies of water have rich fishing grounds, potentially major oil and gas reserves and heavily traveled shipping lanes. The East China Sea’s lanes are considered a strategic gateway to the region.

The Philippines has one of the smallest military budgets in Asia and it is looking for support as it contends with China’s growing assertiveness in the region. It continues to strengthen military ties with the U.S. And in the face of China’s admonition, it has vocally supported Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s relaxing his country’s defense policy.

Future security measures

Japan is supplying 10 new coast guard vessels to the Philippines, which are expected to arrive in 2016. It is also looking at providing technology to help boost Philippine maritime surveillance.

Urabe does not directly name China as one of driving forces changing the security situation Japan faces. And he said the shift in Japan’s security policy is heavily focused on coming to the United States’ aid.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based Asia geopolitical analyst. He said the proposal is widely seen as a way to keep China in check. “On one hand this will make it easier for Mr. Abe to have much more robust countermeasures against China’s territorial provocations in the Senkaku-Diaoyu,” he explained.

Heydarian said it is also a way for Japan to gain a foothold as a major security player in the region. He points out that Japan is bolstering its image as a security counterbalance to China that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can depend on.

Urabe said the shifting defense policy has wide support from ASEAN, Australia, New Zealand and other nations in the region.