Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Tuesday that after neary 70 years as a pacifist country, there would be an end to the ban that has kepts the military on the sidelines of conflict. (Reuters)

Japan took a historic step away from its postwar pacifism Tuesday by ending a ban that has kept its military from fighting abroad since 1945, a victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but a move that has riled China and worries many Japanese voters.

The change, the most dramatic shift in policy since Japan set up its postwar armed forces 60 years ago, will widen the country’s military options by ending the ban on exercising “collective self-defense,” or aiding a friendly country under attack.

Abe’s cabinet adopted a resolution outlining the shift, which also relaxes limits on activities in U.N.-led peacekeeping operations and “gray zone” incidents short of full-scale war, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters.

Long constrained by the postwar constitution, Japan’s armed forces will become more aligned with the militaries of other advanced nations. However, the government will be wary of putting boots on the ground in multilateral operations such as the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Abe repeated that stance Tuesday, while stressing Japan had to respond to an increasingly tough security environment.

“There is no change in the general principle that we cannot send troops overseas,” Abe said at a televised news conference.

The United States, a close ally that has long urged Tokyo to become a more equal partner, welcomed the Japanese move.

“The U.S.-Japan alliance is one of our most important security partnerships, and we value efforts by Japan to strengthen that security cooperation,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a regular news briefing.

The new policy has angered an increasingly assertive China, whose ties with Japan have frayed because of a maritime row, mistrust and the legacy of Japan’s past military aggression.

“China opposes the Japanese fabricating the China threat to promote its domestic political agenda,” Hong Lei, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in Beijing.

South Korea, a U.S. ally that remains aggrieved about Japan’s 20th-century colonization of the Korean Peninsula, said it would not accept any change in policy affecting its security unless it gives its agreement.

Abe’s advisers have said that Tokyo should take no action involving a friendly country without that nation’s consent.

Conservatives say that the constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 limited Japan’s ability to defend itself and that a changing regional power balance, including a rising China, means policies must be more flexible.

Abe, who took office in 2012 promising to revive Japan’s economy and bolster its security posture, has pushed for the change, despite wariness among Japanese citizens.

Some voters worry about entanglement in foreign wars. Others are angry at what they see as a gutting of Article 9 by the lack of formal amendment procedures. The charter has never been revised since it was adopted after Japan’s 1945 defeat.

While Abe spoke, thousands of protesters, including pensioners, housewives and employees just leaving work, gathered near the premier’s office carrying banners and shouting, “Don’t destroy Article 9,” “We’re against war” and “No more Abe.”

Legal revisions to implement the change must be approved by parliament, and restrictions could be imposed in the process.