Japan’s powerful lower house of parliament has approved a security bill on Thursday allowing for the country’s security forces to fight abroad for first time since World War II, before moving to the upper chamber where it is expected to be finalised.
The much debated legislation was protested by thousands in the country who believe it will hurt 70 years of pacifism as opposition parties boycotted the ballot.
But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition members have enough votes to secure the legislation's approval which will expand the role of the country’s military.
“The security situation surrounding Japan is increasingly severe,” Abe told reporters after the vote, “these bills are necessary to protect Japanese people’s lives and prevent a war before it breaks out.”
The controversial bill will lift the geographic restrictions on military operations and allow the Japanese military to defend its allies. Japan will also have the ability to provide logistical support for foreign armies and to join in international peacekeeping operations.
Japan will cooperate not only with the US military but also other Asian countries, as China’s influence rises in the region.
Shinzo Abe's nationalist defence policy has caused a big drop in his approval rates in recent months, but he insists on removing the restrictions over Japan’s military posture.
The legislation is seen as a break from Japan's pacifist constitution that was imposed on it after its defeat in World War II and Abe has promised the United States that he will pass the bill to enable the country to aid allied militaries.
Washington and Tokyo have signed a new defence cooperation agreement based on the bill being passed months ago. But the Japanese people are angered by the changes in the constitution, claiming that Japan has become entangled in wars through its alliance with Washington.
Thousands of them took the streets on Wednesday and Thursday to protest, chanting "No war, no killing."
In parliament, a scuffle broke out as opposition lawmakers flocked to the floor to stop the voting process, holding signs writing “No to Abe politics" and “No to a forced decision."
China, which is seen as the main reason for Japan's need for military change, quickly condemned the move and urged Tokyo to avoid "crippling regional peace and security," hours after the bill was approved.
"It is fully justified to ask if Japan is going to give up its exclusively defence-oriented policy," the foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement posted on the ministry's website, describing the vote as "an unprecedented move since the Second World War."
"We solemnly urge the Japanese side to... refrain from jeopardising China’s sovereignty and security interests or crippling regional peace and stability," Hua said, adding "We solemnly urge the Japanese side to draw hard lessons from history," an apparent reference to Japanese invasion of China in 1937.
China's official Xinhua news agency said the legislation means "a nightmare scenario has come a step closer for Japanese people and neighbouring nations" and it will "tarnish the reputation of a nation that has earned international respect for its pacifist Constitution over a period of nearly seven decades."
One other big factor in the Beijing-Tokyo spat is a cluster of East China Sea islands, which is controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing. Japan's nationalisation of the islands in 2012 sparked anti-Japanese riots and China then sent patrol ships to repeatedly enter the surrounding waters to confront Japanese coast guard vessels.