Loosening of principles guiding weapons exports will boost the Japanese defense industry and relations with the US. But it will come at the cost of its image as a pacifist country.
Last month, Japan’s Ministry of Defense approved the first weapons export under recently revised rules that govern the transfer of military equipment. The approval gave the green light for the export of sensors made by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries designed for U.S. Patriot missiles. Additionally, the Ministry allowed a project with Britain involving air to air missiles to go forward.
Since 1967, Japan has operated under the so-called “Three Principles,” which functioned as a de facto ban on weapons exports. The principles prohibited exports to communist bloc countries, countries under UN Security Council resolutions, and those likely to be involved in conflict.
On April 1st, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe codified changes easing those requirements, nevertheless maintaining a still restrictive policy. Under the new principles, Japan cannot export weapons to countries that violate international treaties, UNSC resolutions, or those engaged in a conflict.
The new rules allow for the re-export of Japanese weapons to third parties, which were previously strictly regulated. They also clear the way for Japan to cooperate on joint military projects (think: the US). More importantly, however, the new rules have three significant security implications for Japan that will play into the evolving tensions in the Asia-Pacific.
1. The US factor
The rules allow for closer security cooperation with the United States. The Abe administration recently made the bold step of reinterpreting Article 9 of the Japanese constitution to permit collective self defense. This legislative move means that Japan can now come to the defense of its allies, such as the United States, if Japan itself is also under threat.
The new rules on exports build on that decision. They were written with the US explicitly in mind: “[Weapons] transfer also contributes to strengthening security and defense cooperation with Japan’s ally, the United States, as well as other countries.” By permitting joint weapons development, Japan can now contribute to projects like the F35 fighter jet. As the US intends to export the jet, Japan previously would have been unable to export parts for its manufacture.
Additionally, the US and Japan want to increase the interoperability of their forces. Japan even created a maritime force modeled on the US Marines. Working on weapons development would further the effectiveness of joint operations.
2. International image
However, the change in export rules also undermines the international image of Japan as a pacifist country. This could exacerbate tensions with South Korea and China, both of which dispute Japan’s account of its militaristic past. South Korea still remembers the Japanese forced occupation of the Korean peninsula and China has squabbled with Japan over both territory and war time atrocities.
The Chinese media characterized the rules decision as “hawkish” and a “step away from postwar pacifism.” If the Chinese public sees Japan as more militant, China’s leaders will have more domestic support to continue aggressive operations in the South and East China seas.
3. Asian allies
Conversely, the implicit commitment to proactively participating in security cooperation could more closely align Japan with Asian countries concerned over China’s assertiveness. Australia reportedly expressed interest in Kawasaki Heavy’s submarines and India began talks considering the purchase of amphibious patrol aircraft.
Furthermore, Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are looking to bolster their military readiness in response to China’s territorial claims. The Philippines recently signed a defense agreement with the US allowing rotational US forces on Filipino bases. Both countries might seek out Japan for military equipment and assistance in the future.
However, even with these changes, Japan’s defense companies face an uphill battle in international markets. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, there are only nine Japanese defense firms in the top 100 arms producing and military services companies in the world.
The top firm, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, ranks 29th and had only $3.01 billion in arms sales in 2012. For comparison, four US firms – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and General Dynamics – each had sales over $20 billion that same year.
Gaining access to world markets will help Japanese firms scale up and lower unit costs as long as they can compete on quality with top arms producers. But the economic gains may end up to be less significant than the political and security implications of loosening weapons exports.