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TOKYO (Reuters) - The idea that Japan can improve its security without dropping a long-standing ban on aiding friendly countries under attack is a miracle that just won't happen, the acting head of an advisory panel to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Wednesday.
Abe has made clear that he wants to lift the ban on so-called collective self-defense to bolster security ties with the United States as China expands its military and North Korea develops its nuclear capabilities.
The lifting of the ban would be a major turning point for the military, which has not engaged in combat since its defeat in World War Two under a U.S.-drafted pacifist charter.
But the dovish New Komeito, the smaller partner in the Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling bloc, is wary of the change, which would allow forces to fight abroad to help countries that come under an attack that seriously threatened Japan's security.
"If the Komeito or opposition parties can improve our legal system without touching today's interpretation, that's very welcome. But I think that would be magic. That's a miracle that you cannot do," Shinichi Kitaoka, acting chairman of a panel likely to issue its report next week, told Reuters.
"If you are trying to defend Japan by individual self-defense alone, Japan has to become a big nuclear power. Relying on right of collective self-defense, relying on a reliable partner, is better than becoming a military monster."
U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed the review of the ban after his April summit with Abe. But giant rival China, ties with which are already chilled by a territorial row and the legacy of Japan's wartime military aggression, would almost certainly criticize the move, while domestic opponents say it would raise the risk of Japan getting sucked into overseas wars.
For decades, Japanese governments have taken the position that while the nation has the right of collective self-defense, exercising that right exceeds what is allowed under the pacifist charter.
Kitaoka said that interpretation was wrong and that Japan's right to exercise collective self-defense should be recognized without geographical or other limits. After that, it should be up to lawmakers in parliament to revise laws to determine what actions are possible under what conditions.
"A right is OK or not OK," he said. "It is very difficult to confine a right. But in parliament you can make some decisions as to in which cases you can do it."
Abe's LDP has a majority in parliament's lower house but needs the New Komeito's seats to maintain a majority in the upper house, which can block bills. The lay Buddhist group that backs the smaller party also helps mobilize voters for LDP candidates in elections, so a coalition rift would be a blow.
Kitaoka said Japan should be able to come to the aid of countries other than close ally the United States, should an attack on such a country seriously threaten Japan's security.
But the panel is likely to suggest guidelines for when Japan should exercise the right, including when there is a clear-cut request from the country under attack and when Japan's parliament approves the action - although the latter could be after the fact in an emergency, Kitaoka said.
Kitaoka rejected criticism that reinterpreting the constitution rather than formally revising it - a politically difficult step requiring approval by two-thirds of the members of both houses of parliament and a majority of voters in a public referendum - would undermine the constitution.
The charter has not been altered since it took effect in 1947.
"The constitution is not a Bible," he said. "It is something human-made that should be recreated, reinterpreted and revised to make it better."
Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo; Editing by Nick Macfie