As President Obama arrives on an Asian tour, yet another sign that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to undo Japan's pacifist policies that are a vestige of World War II.
TOKYO — Japan's recent announcement to abide by the International Court of Justice's decision that forces it to halt its whale-hunting program was widely covered by the international media. But another decision from Tokyo, crucial for the region's stability, went largely unnoticed in comparison: Japan's return to the global weapons market, 50 years after a self-imposed ban.
While largely ignored in the West, the decision has set off fears and criticism in China, as well as South Korea, another strong ally to the United States, as President Barack Obama begins a week-long visit to Asia.
Tokyo's return to the weapons market is adding to the rising tensions with these two countries, largely fueled by historical and territorial differences. Beijing and Seoul see yet another sign that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has no plans to halt on his path towards the revision of Japan's 1947 pacifist Constitution — which forbids the use of war — so as to enable the archipelago to take part in a collective defense system and to be able to help allies under threat. Japan would then be able to play a bigger role in the regional order and, among other things, to counter China's military power.
In 1967, in the middle of the Cold War, Japan forbade itself from exporting weapons to Communist countries as well as those under a United Nations embargo or involved in international conflicts. These restrictions were reinforced in 1976 to become a full ban on selling arms abroad. Thus, after having been indirectly involved in the American war in Vietnam — by acting as a aircraft carrier of sorts with the numerous U.S. bases in the archipelago — Japan reaffirmed its pacifist stance.
Since 2004, Tokyo has been allowing Japanese firms to take part in the production of weapons with the United States, but the ban on exports remained. The fact that it has been lifted is evidence of the new strategy that Tokyo calls "proactive pacifism."
Japan can now sell military gear — described in official documents as "defense supplies," another notable euphemism — to certain countries if it wishes, provided that they do not represent a threat to global peace and security and that the weapons are not resold to a third country.
Dignity by revisionism?
Japan, which produces ammunition, assault rifles, tanks, ships and the US-2 amphibious aircraft, is thus considering selling its gear to the Philippines and Vietnam, two countries that also have territorial disputes with China.
At the same time, Tokyo is seeking to develop its partnership with the U.S. and European Union countries for the construction of weapons. Abe's government is also planning to review its Development Assistance Charter so as to be able to militarily assist others — its aid being currently limited to civil assistance — and to "promote universal values of freedom, democracy and human rights," according to the country's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Seiji Kihara.
The scope of Japan's return to the weapons market however goes beyond strategic policy. For years, large industrial companies had been demanding that the export ban be lifted so as to stimulate arms production and favor the development of a complete military–industrial complex. At $16 billion in 2010, the interior market represents only 0.6% of the country's GDP, and the price of the equipment it produces is not very competitive.
Beyond the debate on whether Japan's pacifist Constitution should be amended and the perhaps excessive fears sparked by the country's "remilitarization," is the question of the context in which this decision was made. Tokyo is indeed reacting to a relative drop in the U.S. presence in the region and to China's hegemonic plans by reinforcing its ties with Australia, India and Southeast Asian countries.
But Japan's repositioning, though favored by Washington, comes against the backdrop of Abe's desire to reassess the country's World War II history. His willingness to assert Japan's return to the international stage — justifiable in itself — is combined with a historical revisionism that sparked outcry not only in China but also, and even worse in the eyes of Washington, in South Korea.
Tokyo's refusal to acknowledge the fact that it forced South Korean women into prostitution (calling them "comfortable women") and Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasakuni shrine, where among the honored soldiers are convicted war criminals, are shaking the three-way alliance with South Korea and the United States.
The unease provoked in America and Europe by Japan's denial is stronger than Tokyo seems to think. The country's dignity on the international stage will not arrive by refusing to acknowledge the past crimes committed by part of its army, including against its own people. It is taking Shinzo Abe a long time to realize this.