Japan’s self-imposed arms export embargo began modestly in 1967, based on the “three principles” of not exporting arms to communist states, states subject to UN arms embargoes, and states involved in or likely to be involved in international conflicts. Eventually, the policy evolved into a full-scale arms export ban, with only a few exceptions for technology transfers to the U.S. until Prime Minister Shinzo Abe overturned the ban in April 2014.
Under the new policy, Japan will continue the restriction of exports to states subject to UN embargoes (specifically Iran and North Korea) or involved in conflicts, but will allow exports in cases that will contribute to global peace and serve Japan’s security interests. The Abe government will also seek to make the process of defense exports and technology cooperation more transparent and to restrict the process so weapons will not be sold to third parties. In Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga’s words, the new policy “will contribute to peace and international cooperation from the standpoint of proactive pacifism.”
After the lifting of the ban, the first major weapons deal was approved last July when the Japanese Defense Ministry announced a deal to supply missile interceptor parts to the U.S. and transfer sensor-related technology to the U.K. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries manufactures the gyroscopes that the U.S. uses to increase precision in its Patriot Advanced Capability-2 (PAC-2) missile interceptors, and Mitsubishi Electric is likely to be involved in a joint research project with Britain to improve air-to-air missiles’ guiding capabilities.
Such weapons deals of course have important commercial and technological implications. However, they should be understood as part of the bigger geopolitical game that Japan is playing to enhance its security by cooperating with like-minded states. As a Japanese defense ministry official stated, “I believe by providing these components, our relations with the United States will improve further.” In a time of fiscal austerity around the world, joint research projects are important to help reduce costs as well as provide for global stability. Tokyo also hopes to increase U.S. commitment to Japanese security by signaling a willingness to share the burden of providing for Japanese defense.
The $20 billion Japan-Australia submarine proposal that generated a lot of media hype last fall also stems from this kind of thinking. Japan and Australia are both eager for the U.S. to remain committed to the Asia-Pacific, and a submarine deal would accomplish this goal by demonstrating that Japan and Australia are responsible stakeholders in the security of the Asia-Pacific. The submarine deal will help Japan’s indigenous defense industry become more competitive and cost-effective by taking advantage of economies of scale, and will help reduce Australia’s underwater capability gap when the Collins fleet is due to be retired in 2025. But both political and technical challenges remain, as Australian politicians wrangle over domestic versus international production and Japanese bureaucrats must create a new a legal, technical, and bureaucratic system to export such a major platform.
In the past week, Japan has expressed an interest in working with France. How to promote Japanese exports and increase joint research will be on the agenda for their 2+2 meeting in March. The two sides are interested in developing underwater drones and robots that can work in radioactive environments. A particular concern for Japan is to ensure that collaboration will not benefit Japan’s adversaries; France has previously supplied weapons to China.
Japan has also asked the U.K. to buy its P-1 submarine hunting jet to replace the British-made Hawker Siddeley Nimrod. Though the P-1 will have to compete against Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon for a deal that could top $1 billion, for Japan’s insulated defense industries, even being treated as a credible contender would be a significant step forward.
China has not been happy with these developments. As early as last February, before the export ban was lifted, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying stated, “Against the backdrop of an intensifying swing to the right for Japanese politics, the intention behind and effect of massively loosening restrictions on the export of weapons really worries people.” Spokesperson Hong Lei followed up in April, commenting, “The policy changes of Japan in military and security areas concern the security environment and strategic stability of the whole region. Due to historical reasons, Japan’s security policies are always closely followed by regional countries and the international community.” China is concerned that Japan’s new steps in defense cooperation are being directed against Beijing. Japan is already supplying nonlethal equipment to the coast guards of the Philippines and Vietnam, states that have territorial disputes with China in the resource-rich South China Sea.
Dissatisfaction is also found in an unexpected quarter – in Japan’s defense companies themselves. Unlike the warmongering associated with defense industrial complexes around the world, Japanese defense industry leaders seem to embrace Japan’s postwar pacifism. As The Washington Post reports, “Officials at the big defense companies have been reluctant to even discuss the prospect of expanding their defense exports, privately shrugging off the opportunity to develop a global market and simply saying they’ll do it if the government asks.” For example, Kawasaki Heavy Industries’ spokesman answered that the company will follow government policy on the P-1 deal, but did not stake a company position on the question.
Akifumi Arai, the president of Tamagawa Trading Company, a smaller business that sells sensors and gyroscopes for torpedoes and missiles, eloquently captures the doubt and ambiguity that many regular Japanese feel about Japan’s evolving security role in the world: “I’m very happy to provide our weapons all over the world. Unfortunately, these weapons will be used to kill people, and I really hate this.” Before working on convincing foreign governments to purchase Japanese weapons, Abe should perhaps clarify to his own people how exactly expansion of Japan’s indigenous defense industry and the proliferation of Japanese weapons around the world will benefit Japan and help produce the global peace that many Japanese so cherish.