Japan confirmed expectations today by loosening the restrictions on arms exports. The restrictions were originally put into place together with limitations on Japan's "self-defense forces" to convince Japan's Asian neighbors that the country's militarism was a thing of the past.
Ironically, it is the government of the Democratic Party that evolved from the pacifistic Socialist party that is relaxing the restrictions.
Japan explained the move euphemistically: "Under the new standards, Japan will be able to transport military equipment for missions of peace-building and international co-operation," Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told reporters today.
Under the more generous interpretation, 'peace-building' can include Japan's contribution to regional alliances such as that involving the United States, Japan and India. As the alliances are billed as defensive and necessary for securing the peace, they will meet the new guidelines. The move was hailed by Japan's business lobby as "epoch–making, in the hope that it will provide new export outlets and jobs.
The turnabout was prompted by economic and strategic considerations. Economically, Japan despite its mammoth foreign currency reserves, shoulders a massive debt. This constricts defense outlays.
When the restrictions were in force, Japan could not participate in expensive weapons development projects because even minor inputs of Japanese software and hardware prevented the weapon from being sold abroad under the existing limitations. This meant that on a mega billion project such as the American F-35 stealth fighter, Japan would have economic pain with no gain. Now Japan can share procurement costs with other countries, notably the United States, thereby economizing on defense costs while sharing revenues on exports of the product.
Strategically, the relaxation of restrictions coincides with Japan's determination not to fall behind the massive buildup of the Chinese armed forces. Japan will now have an advantage in sharing technology with the Americans, Europeans and perhaps India.
China is essentially on its own as the Russians have recently shied away from supplying China with state-of-the-art weapon system for fear the Chinese would reverse-engineer them and emerge as a market competitor.
The opposition Communist Party denounced the relaxation as a violation of the pacifistic spirit of Japan's Constitution. The Communists are right, but most Japanese consider the limitations an anachronism given a nuclear North Korea and a militarily growing China.