TOKYO -- After years of watching its international influence eroded by a slow-motion economic decline, pacifist Japan is trying to raise its profile in a new way, offering military aid for the first time in decades and displaying its own armed forces in an effort to build regional alliances and shore up other countries' defenses to counter a rising China.
Already this year, Japan crossed a little-noted threshold by providing its first military aid abroad since the end of World War II, approving a $2 million package for its military engineers to train troops in Cambodia and East Timor in disaster relief and skills such as road building. Japan's warships have not only conducted joint exercises with a growing number of military forces in the Pacific and Asia, but have also begun making regular port visits to nations long fearful of a Japanese military resurgence.
And after stepping up civilian aid programs to train and equip the coast guards of other nations, Japanese defense officials and analysts say, Japan could soon reach another milestone: beginning regional sales of military hardware such as seaplanes, and perhaps eventually the stealthy diesel-powered submarines considered well-suited to the shallow waters where China is making increasingly assertive territorial claims.
Taken together those steps, while modest, represent a significant shift for Japan, which had resisted repeated calls from the United States to become a true regional power for fear that would move it too far from its postwar pacifism.
The country's quiet resolve to edge past that reluctance and become more of a player comes as the U.S. and China are staking their own claims to power in Asia, and as jitters over China's ambitions appear to be softening bitterness toward Japan among some Southeast Asian countries trampled last century in its quest for colonial domination.
The driver for Japan's shifting national security strategy is its tense dispute with China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that is feeding Japanese anxiety that their nation's relative decline -- and the financial struggles of their traditional protector, the United States -- are leaving them increasingly vulnerable.
"During the Cold War, all Japan had to do was follow the U.S.," said Keiro Kitagami, a special adviser on security issues to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. "With China, it's different. Japan has to take a stand on its own."
Japan's moves do not mean it might transform its military, which serves a purely defensive role, into an offensive force anytime soon. The public has resisted past efforts by some politicians to revamp Japan's pacifist constitution, and the nation's vast debt will limit how much military aid it can extend.
But it is also clear that attitudes in Japan are evolving, as China continues its double-digit annual growth in military spending and asserts that it should be in charge of the islands Japan claims, as well as vast swaths of the South China Sea that various Southeast Asian nations say are in their control.
Japanese leaders have met the Chinese challenge over the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, with an uncharacteristic willingness to push back. Polls show the Japanese public is increasingly in agreement. Both major political parties are also talking openly about instituting a more flexible reading of the constitution that would allow Japan to come to the defense of allies -- shooting down any North Korean missile headed for the U.S., for instance -- blurring the line between an offensive and defensive force.