Tokyo Notes

Japan to Rethink Arms Exports?

The defence minister suggests an effective blanket ban on arms exports needs rethinking.

While children competed under blue skies in school sports festivals across Japan during Monday’s public holiday, Toshimi Kitazawa was in an altogether more serious mood at a gathering of defence ministers in Hanoi.

Japan’s defence chief grabbed the headlines with a move ostensibly aimed at smoothing ties after the recent spat with Beijing over a maritime collision in disputed waters. In a brief meeting in a hotel cafe, Kitazawa reportedly sought the cooperation of his opposite number, Liang Guanglie, on setting up a liaison system between the two nations to prevent future nautical brannigans. It’s unclear how Liang responded to the specific suggestion, but he was quoted as saying the meeting went ‘very well.’

Kitazawa should be applauded for his sensible approach to an issue that at one stage looked as if it was getting out of hand. But while he was holding out an olive branch with one hand, the other one has long been twitching to pull the pin on a potential political grenade.

In a meeting with US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, Kitazawa apparently reaffirmed his belief that Japan’s policy of an almost blanket ban on arms exports should be radically overhauled. The reportedly soon-to-be departing US defence chief warmly welcomed Kitazawa’s sentiments, undoubtedly keen for his country to tap any Japanese prowess in this area.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In 1967, the Japanese government declared three principles regarding arms exports, banning the sale of weapons to 1) communist bloc countries; 2) countries subject to arms embargos under UN Security Council resolutions; and 3) countries involved in or likely to be involved in international conflicts. These principles were tightened in 1976 to almost completely prohibit arms exports. But in 1983, the government exempted exports of weapons technologies to its closest ally, the United States (a country, it has to be said, that’s never far from being subject to the third principle). Arms exports are currently made on a ‘case-by-case’ basis.

Proponents of lifting of the ban argue that it’s choking Japan’s struggling defence industry and stifles its capacity to upgrade its Self-Defence Forces by making it difficult to contribute to costly multinational projects, which in turn pushes up the price of weapons imports to Japan.

In an editorial earlier this year, the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun called for a review of the ban: ‘The government should face the facts and recognize that the decline of the defence industry will damage the national interest,’ adding, ‘Such relaxation of the three principles does not contradict Japan's philosophy of a peaceful country.’

An advisory panel to Prime Minister Naoto Kan also recently proposed that the principles be eased. It suggested that Japan transform its basic defence concept from being a passive deterrent to an active one—strong words indeed for a country that’s one of only two in the world with a pacifist constitutional clause (the other being Costa Rica).

Japan’s third-biggest daily, the centrist Mainichi Shimbun, countered in an August 28 editorial: ‘We cannot agree to the abandonment of the principles—which have been regarded as the core of the philosophy of Japan as a country committed to peace—in return for the development of the defence industry.’

Kitazawa’s comments to Gates could also provoke further ructions within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (a party cobbled together from a mix of moderates, socialists and former Liberal Democratic Party members). Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, for example, chastised the oft-outspoken Kitazawa in February for making ‘careless’ comments about reviewing the three principles.

With many Japanese jittery about China’s increasingly pugnacious military, public sentiment (especially among the younger generation) seems to be shifting toward a more assertive approach to national defence.

Of course, it’s always healthy for a country to be able to question even seemingly sacred policies, so an open review and debate on Japan’s arms export policy wouldn’t be a bad thing. The principle of not selling arms to communist bloc nations is essentially obsolete now, and it would also be helpful to look at the principle of case-by-case exports of weapons to countries engaged in war.

But Japanese policymakers must also be aware that relaxing arms exports would almost inevitably open an even bigger can of worms—whether to rewrite or scrap Article 9 of its pacifist constitution.