Japan’s self-imposed ban on weapons exports dates back to 1967 when it declared its Three Principles under which no “arms,” broadly defined as actual weapons and non-offensive defense technology, would be transferred to communist nations, countries subject to arms embargoes under the United Nations Security Council, and countries involved in or likely to be involved in international conflicts.
It further tightened the screw in February 1976 when the government “announced the collateral policy guideline at the Diet session that the ‘arms’ exports to other areas not included in the Three Principles will be also restrained in conformity with Japan’s position as a peace-loving nation. In other words, the collateral policy guideline declared that the Government of Japan shall not promote ‘arms’ exports, regardless of the destinations.” The government of Japan additionally prohibited overseas investment in arms manufacturers but excluded dual-use technology from the ban.
The above ban was forged and understood in the context of Japan’s post-World War II constitution. Article 9 of the constitution renounces Japan’s right to wage war and prohibits it from maintaining a standing army for anything but self-defense. Accordingly, Japan maintains Self-Defense Forces and a robust assortment of defensive military hardware.
As of this writing, the above information is still publicly available and reflected on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website. However, as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bid to usher Japan into an era of “proactive pacifism,” a series of reviews are underway on Japan’s arms export policies. As early as 2011, back when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power, Japanese policymakers relaxed exports on the ground that Japan’s defense industry was growing increasingly sclerotic without access to international markets. In 2011, the move was fairly limited, allowing Japan to participate in joint development projects and supply equipment for humanitarian missions.
This week, Japan’s Kyodo News reported that Japan would allow exports of defense equipment to international organizations engaged in peacekeeping operations provided that they maintain neutrality in these conflicts. Additionally, Japan will ease up on restrictions on third-party acquisition of Japanese defense equipment.
To an extent, Abe can legitimately frame the issue of lifting Japan’s ban on arms exports on economic grounds. While this might not strictly fall under the third arrow of “Abenomics,” involving structural reform, it will open a severely constrained sector of Japanese business and allow for better economies of scale and increased export revenues. This explanation is unlikely to satisfy China and South Korea who might point to strategic overtures available to Japan with the lifting of the weapons ban.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, Japan and India are likely to conclude a deal this year on the sale of the Japanese ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious patrol aircraft in what would be the first sale of an indigenously developed Japanese defense aircraft to any country. Historically, post-war Japan has cemented strategic relationships around the globe through its Official Development Assistance (ODA) program and trade. Defense exports would allow Japan to more overtly broach the topic of defense cooperation with other countries, which could be deeply unsettling for China.
Lifting the ban on arms exports won’t in the short-term change the fact that Japan is still banned from acquiring any sort of offensive hardware of its own. However, if the LDP-New Komeito coalition approves the changes to the ban and manages to successfully push the changes through the Diet, it might create a new normal for Japanese public opinion. The Japanese public has generally found itself less supportive of changes to the nation’s legislated pacifism compared to certain politicians – certainly Shinzo Abe (although one Chinese think-tank analyst finds that 80 percent of Japan’s public believe the country is subject to foreign threats and “may be dragged into a major war”).