TOKYO - Japan's ruling party wants to loosen self-imposed rules banning arms exports in a bid to boost the country's defence influence, a report said Wednesday, a move that would mark a major shift from its pacifism and could irritate China.
A draft document that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants approved by his cabinet next month would allow Tokyo to supply weaponry to nations that sit along important sea lanes to help them fight piracy, Kyodo News said, an important step for a country like Japan which depends so heavily on mineral imports.
This would mean nations such as Indonesia, but could also include others around the South China Sea - through which fossil fuels pass - such as the Philippines, for example, which has a territorial dispute with Beijing.
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.
Beijing resists attempts to multi-lateralise its disputes, while Manila has sought to make common cause with other countries at odds with China. Japan already supplies equipment to the Philippines' coast guard, an organisation that is increasingly on the front line in the row 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 by the backdoor.
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 general public support as a symbol of the pacifism that many Japanese treasure.
But 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.
Japan works with its only official ally the United States on weapon projects.
But it does not fully participate in multi-nation programmes aimed at sharing development cost and know-how, because of the current ban.
Hawkish premier Abe is capitalising on unease in Japan about China's increasing assertiveness and pushing to bolster his nation's military, including to allow it the right to "collective self-defence" - coming to the aid of an ally under attack.
The proposed policy change would still prohibit Japan from exports that would undermine global peace and security, Kyodo News said, citing a draft of the document it has obtained.
The government would inspect all arms sales and make sure exported weapons would not be transferred to another nation or used for purposes other than originally intended, Kyodo said.