Tuesday, April 27, 1999 Published at 12:16 GMT 13:16 UK
Japan bolsters US defence ties
Hundreds gathered to protest against the new legislation
The lower house of parliament in Japan has approved legislation bolstering defence ties with the United States.
The move has been described as a legislative victory for Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who had urged lawmakers to pass the bills before his departure on Thursday for a summit in Washington with the US President Bill Clinton.
The legislation - implementing an agreement reached by the two countries in 1997 - enshrines new defence guidelines allowing Japanese forces to give greater military support to the Americans in any regional emergency.
Japan's less powerful upper house of parliament is expected to approve the legislation in a largely symbolic vote next month.
Some groups in Japan oppose the changes, fearing a widened security role would violate the constitutional clause barring Japanese forces from offensive military action.
More than 47,000 American service men and women serve in Japan under a 1960 security treaty and other bilateral defence accords - about two-thirds of them on the southernmost island of Okinawa.
Under the new defence law, US naval forces would be allowed to use Japanese civilian ports and Japanese ships could conduct minesweeping operations. The US will supply the military hardware and forces used in battle.
But a controversial clause which would have given Japanese warships the authority to inspect other ships at sea to enforce United Nations sanctions was shelved during negotiations between the governing parties and the opposition New Komeito party, which supported the bills.
Tuesday's vote drew criticism from China, which worries about Japan and the United States interfering in its relations with Taiwan, considered by Beijing as a renegade province.
"We express our deep concern over this. Japan has ignored the strong concerns of its neighbour countries, including China," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi told reporters in Beijing.
Taiwan's defense ministry gave a cautious welcome to the new guidelines.
"We're watching developments and optimistic about success," said Cheng Shih-yu, a spokesman for the ministry's General Staff Headquarters.