Shinzo Abe’s plan to allow Japan to export weapons—one of the most controversial tenets of his national security strategy—is running up against domestic opposition. The New Komeito party, the junior partner in Abe’s coalition government, “is hesitant to give the green light for drastic changes” to the rules governing arms exports, as the Japan Times reports:
Under the proposed new rules, arms exports would be banned to countries that are clearly involved in activities that threaten global peace and security or those that are involved in conflicts. The rules would also mandate strict screening of such exports and would only allow them to a country where controls are in place to prevent arms from being transferred to a third country or used for purposes other than originally intended.
These new rules seem pretty mild, but for Japan they are a sharp departure from the past. Some Japanese peace parties are loath to allow the country to remilitarize in any fashion. Since 1967 Japan has banned arms sales to certain beastly countries (ones with communist governments, warring states, and so on). In 1976 that ban was extended to pretty much everyone. Moreover, the country is constitutionally bound not to maintain an army. (Its military is called a “self-defense force.”)Abe wants to change this. Confronted with increasingly hostile neighbors, Japan needs to be able to present a strong front, he says. To that end, he raised Japan’s defense spending for the first time in a decade last year, he called for a quick-deployment brigade similar to the U.S. Marines to defend Japan’s far-flung islands, and he organized a National Security Council, based on the U.S. model. Allowing Japanese military technology companies to export weapons is his next goal. This would not only strengthen Japan’s security relationships with its allies (such as India, which is eager to be the first to buy Japanese military aircraft; it would also give Japan’s defense industry a much-needed boost. As the Economist reports, “The arms-export ban keeps costs high by obliging the local defence industry to produce materiel in relatively small batches.”This is a delicate balancing act for Abe, and it would be a big change for Japan. Despite opposition from New Komeito, Abe’s plans have momentum. As a former Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister put it recently, it is “a rational progression that builds upon Japan’s past national security policy while maintaining a liberal internationalist strategic outlook.” China and South Korea, however, are unlikely to see it that way. Any attempt by Japan to strengthen its military capabilities will elicit similar moves in both countries. Especially China.