Originally Published 2014-04-11 05:11:16 Published on Apr 11, 2014
One can see two major reasons for PM Shinzo Abe's decision to change the policy on arms exports. First, Abe is keen to remove many of the self-imposed taboos that have stood in the way of Japan becoming a 'normal country'. At a time when the security environment in East Asia has become so tense, Japan cannot afford to neglect the modernisation of its defence industry.
Japan's new arms exports policy: Move to make Japan 'normal country'?
"The Japanese government has taken a major decision to modify its decades-old ban on arms exports to foreign countries. The new policy, taken by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 1, 2014, will open a wide range of possibilities in the sphere of arms transfers, defence production and defence cooperation. The salient features of the new policy are that Japan will continue to be committed to the philosophy of a pacifist state that respects the UN Charter. Japan will not export weapons to countries that are involved in conflicts and have violated UN resolutions.

Under the new policy, arms exports will be permitted only for 'contributing' to international cooperation such as the UN peace-keeping missions and the protection of the sea lanes of communication. It also prescribes strict screenings and transparency whenever arms are exported. In order to prevent the transfer of Japanese arms and equipment to third countries, the new policy has made it incumbent for a partner country to take Japan's consent for the transfer. For ensuring transparency, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Economy, Trade and Industry (METI ) will conduct strict screenings and whenever there is need for greater precaution, the National Security Council ( NSC ) will make the final decision.

Export of arms has always been a sensitive subject in Japan and it is also considered one among several taboos that have prevailed in Japanese politics for a long time. One obvious reason for the restrictions on the export of arms is Japan's post-war pacifism. It was way back in 1967 that the Japanese government under Prime Minister Eisaku Sato adopted three principles on arms exports. Under this, Japan prohibited arms exports to countries under three categories- communist countries, countries facing arms embargoes under UN resolutions and countries involved in international conflicts. In 1976, under Prime Minister Takeo Miki, an intense pacifist, the Japanese government made the three conditions a virtual ban on arms exports. The government announced new guidelines in that year that restricted arms exports even to other areas not mentioned in the three principles.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry ( METI ) controls the exports of arms based on the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law. The government has also put in place an Export Trade Control Order which has listed a number of arms and equipment for arms production that require export licenses to all destinations as they are considered prejudicial to the maintenance of international peace and security. The government has also strictly controlled direct overseas investment for the purpose of manufacturing arms abroad as well as participation in the overseas construction projects of military facilities. Similarly, the export of technologies that are related to the design and production of "arms" has also been under severe official control.

In 1983, the government somewhat diluted the three principles when it permitted the transfer of military technologies to the US during the administration of Yasuhiro Nakasone. It was done as an exception with a view to ensuring what it called the "effective operation" of the US-Japan security alliance. It is reported that more than twenty such exceptions have been made since then and the latest one was that which allowed Japanese companies to participate in developing F-35 fighter. But the government made a definite departure from its restrictive policies in 2011 when it relaxed the rules to permit exports for humanitarian and peaceful purposes and to participate in joint development and production of weapons.

One can see two major reasons that have driven the Abe administration to make the present policy change. First, Abe is keen to remove many of the self-imposed taboos that have stood in the way of Japan becoming a 'normal country'. At a time when the security environment in East Asia has become so tense, Japan cannot afford to neglect the modernisation of its defence industry. Second, the removal of restrictions on arms exports, many believe, will provide a great impetus to Japanese companies for participating in joint development and joint production. Due to government's stringent restrictive policies, defence industry in Japan has stagnated a great deal and defence production has been entirely geared to the needs of Japan's Self-defence Forces only thereby exerting a big negative impact on the country's technological base.

Ever since he returned to power in December 2012, Abe has been encouraging his government to conduct negotiations with foreign countries for exporting Japan's defence technology and equipment. He has supplied patrol vessels to the Philippines in order to strengthen its troubled coasts. Negotiations for the supply of indigenously produced US 2 amphibious aircraft to India have been going on for the last about two years. A successful agreement is expected to usher in a new era of cooperative relations between India and Japan in the defence sphere. In 2013, Japan signed an important defence agreement with Britain.

Japan will soon start negotiations with Australia and France. At the time of his first official visit to Tokyo on April 7-8, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Japanese Prime Minister Abe agreed to start negotiations for creating a framework for defence equipment and technology cooperation. As a first step, both countries are planning to collaborate in basic research on submarine technologies. It is also useful to note that Abbott was invited to attend a meeting of Japan's National Security Council as a special guest. It may be recalled that it was during the first tenure of Abe's prime ministership that both Japan and Australia signed the Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security and Cooperation in 2007.

Japan and France are also expected to start their first working level meeting soon for designing a similar framework that would identify areas for bilateral defence collaboration.

Prime Minister Abe's new policy, to be sure, has also aroused some concerns both at home and abroad. Many in Japan worry that Japanese weapons could be used in international conflicts and cause great embarrassment to Tokyo. They also see a danger of Japanese weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups or countries that are hostile to Japan. In addition, as expected, both China and South Korea have expressed their apprehensions and called upon Japan to show the maximum level transparency in implementing the newly adopted policy.

(Prof K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


K. V. Kesavan

K. V. Kesavan

K.V. Kesavan (1938 2021) was Visiting Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He was one of the leading Indian scholars in the field of Japanese studies. Professor ...

Read More +