TOKYO - Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has drawn up plans to overhaul the pacifist country's self-imposed ban on arms exports, an official said on Thursday, in a move that could anger China.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has delivered the blueprint to lawmakers in his party and coalition partner New Komeito, according to an LDP official, with the premier looking for a green light from cabinet by the end of the month.
The relaxed rules could allow Tokyo to supply weaponry to nations that sit along important sea lanes to help them fight piracy and also help resource-poor Japan, which depends on mineral imports.
Japanese arms could potentially be shipped to Indonesia as well as nations around the South China Sea -- through which fossil fuels pass -- such as the Philippines, for example, which has a territorial dispute with Beijing.
The move would boost Japan's defence industry amid simmering regional tensions including a territorial row with China, and fears over an unpredictable North Korea.
Japan already supplies equipment to the Philippines' coast guard, an organisation that is increasingly on the front line in the nation's territorial rows with Beijing.
Any move to bolster that support with more outright weapon supplies could irk China, which regularly accuses Abe of trying to re-militarise his country.
China and Japan are at loggerheads over the ownership of a string of islands in the East China Sea, while Beijing is also in dispute with several nations over territory in the South China Sea, which it claims almost entirely.
Under its 1967 ban, Japan does not sell arms to communist nations, countries where the United Nations bans weapons sales, and nations that might become involved in armed conflicts.
The rule has long enjoyed widespread public support as a symbol of Japan's post-war pacifism.
However, it has been widely seen as impractical among experts because it stops Japan from joining international projects to jointly develop sophisticated military equipment, such as jets and missiles.
In 2011, Tokyo eased the ban on arms exports, paving the way for Japanese firms to take part in multinational weapons projects.
Japan works with its only official ally the United States on weapon projects.
It also works with Britain, but it does not fully participate in multi-nation programmes aimed at sharing development cost and know-how, because of the current ban.
The new rules may open the door to Japan's broader participation in such projects.
Japan would still "ban exports to countries involved in international conflicts," and exports that would undermine international peace and security, Abe told parliament this week.
Japanese experts are divided over an overhaul, with some saying it is necessary for cutting defence costs, while others expressing concerns over tainting Japan's peaceful image by expanding markets for the nation's defence industry.