Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has relaxed curbs on arms exports and sees great market potential in Asia. In the Pacific Century, Asia’s impressive economic growth is funding expanding defense budgets, making the region the most lucrative global arms market. Alas, it is also a region of significant flash points.

In 1967, Japan adopted three principles that banned the transfer of weapons to communist nations, countries facing U.N. sanctions and those involved in international conflicts. These curbs morphed into a blanket ban on arms exports in 1976, bolstering Japan’s pacifist identity. Since the 1980s, however, the government has made numerous exceptions so that Japan could participate in weapons development projects with the United States. This progressive erosion of the ban gained momentum in 2011 when the Democratic Party of Japan approved arms exports for what it termed “humanitarian and peaceful purposes.”

There is a dubious logic to justifying arms exports in terms of “humanitarian and peaceful purposes.” By this yardstick, the U.S. must be the leading contributor to peace and humanitarian causes since it is by far the world’s largest arms exporter, commanding a 75 percent market share. However, the world sees things differently as a recent global survey conducted by Gallup found that the U.S. is considered the greatest threat to world peace by 25 percent of respondents compared to 6 percent naming China.

Promoting arms exports is a pillar of Abe’s proactive pacifism. The problem is that the arms export curbs have become norms in Japan that are valued by the public as a responsible policy. New Komeito, the Liberal Democratic Party’s coalition partner, is uncomfortable with Abe’s security agenda and has tried unsuccessfully to restrain him. As on many issues, widespread public misgivings count for little in Diet power plays under Japan’s one-party rule.

Ostensibly, the “Abe principles” allow arms exports to promote international cooperation and Japan’s security interests with promises of rigorous bureaucratic screening and oversight. But putting such hooey aside, Abe seeks to boost Japan’s global security role and cozy up to Washington. He also wants to help the Japanese defense industry tap the lucrative global arms bazaar. Yet, arms exports may undermine Japan’s security by embroiling it in overseas conflicts and sowing distrust and animosity related to the use of these weapons, thereby eroding the international stature Japan painstaking cultivated in the second half of the 20th century. The Japanese public is leery of Abe’s “proactive pacifism” because they understand it has little to do with pacifism, but in the absence of an effective opposition party, these concerns are easily ignored.

Abe is finally realizing conservatives’ long-standing agenda of making Japan into what is termed a “normal” nation by shredding the nation’s pacifist principles. China has proved extremely useful in helping push this agenda by militarizing its territorial conflicts in the East and South China seas and boosting defense expenditures by eightfold over the past two decades.

Robert Kaplan, author of “Asia’s Cauldron” (2014), looks at the implications of this arms buildup for the South China Sea where Beijing has clashed with Manila and Hanoi over disputed territories, and has simmering disputes with Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Kaplan has a penchant for hyperbole and contradictory arguments, but makes it clear that China views control over the South China Sea as a strategic imperative.

Kaplan argues that Washington should maintain a powerful naval presence to safeguard freedom of navigation and counter China’s moves toward regional hegemony, while suggesting that it should also be prepared to cede its dominance and accommodate China’s aspirations. It is the prospect of such an accommodation that has Tokyo worried.

Alessio Patalano, a professor at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and an expert on Asian maritime issues is not convinced there really is an arms race in Asia. In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Strategic Studies he points out that adjusted for purchasing-power parity, there is no increase in China’s latest budget while Japan’s budget has been flat and now focuses on developing capacities it lacked (amphibious) and enhancing existing capacities relevant to the, “geographic shift of national defense to the southwest of the archipelago such as subs, ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and maritime patrol.”

He argues that the surge in defense spending owes much to the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea that came into force in 1994. This convention has raised the stakes at sea, thus requiring sharp increases in military spending to develop or modernize maritime capabilities to secure claims and access.

Kaplan raises the alarm about China’s new underground submarine base on Hainan Island for 20 nuclear subs expected to be ready by 2020. Nations in the region, including India and Australia, have responded with plans to buy more than 100 subs in the next 15 years. The focus on sheer numbers, Patalano argues, overlooks how difficult it is to build up effective submarine operational capabilities: “Very, very few navies in the world have those. China is not one of them.” Overall, “the purchase of submarines across the wider East and Southeast Asian region is understandable since subs provide a good mix of denial and offensive capabilities, depending on their tactical deployment. In addition, they perform important reconnaissance and patrol functions.”

Ironically, the rapid expansion of the Chinese Navy has made it more isolated in the region, nurturing an arc of anxiety stretching from India to Japan. This backlash is providing a diplomatic opening for Japan to develop closer partnerships with regional nations to counter China’s hegemonic ambitions. In this volatile situation, Patalano warns that, “the use of force by military and paramilitary forces to create a de facto change to the status quo or to coerce other coastal states” is dangerously counterproductive.

Given rivalries in Asia, Abe’s rash decision to promote arms exports may also prove counterproductive. Shifting attention from territorial disputes to practical concerns such as navigation, fisheries and exploration of oil and gas potential offers the opportunity to build trust. In this context, slogans such as weapons for peace and proactive pacifism seem like dicey and unsuitable branding strategies that underscore the need for a sound geopolitical strategy.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian studies, Temple University Japan

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