Japan defence industry: Arm thy neighbour

Japan defence industry: Arm thy neighbour

The lifting of the ban on weapon exportation, strongly advocated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, reflects the intention of Japan to establish important partnerships in the region. This serves to enhance the military and technological aspects of its new security strategy, but Japan also seeks important remunerative opportunities.

Northeast Asia has become the most militarised region in the world, and since China began to expand its naval capabilities, many neighbouring countries have focused their resources on weapons acquisition, thereby intensifying naval competition in the region. This scenario can represent an important opportunity for the Japanese defence industry – now back after the lifting of the ban on weapon technology transfer.

The 1967 legislation stopped Japan from exporting weapons or transferring military technology, and seriously prevented it from becoming a powerful defence supplier on the global market during the years of its unstoppable economic growth. This was despite its powerful industrial base and its sophisticated hi-tech R&D competitiveness.

But since 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has launched major reforms on national security to elaborate a new strategic framework in which Japan will be able to play a more central role in the balance of power in the Asia Pacific region. The lifting of the ban on the export of weapons and military hardware represents an important cornerstone for establishing a close cooperation with trusted allies, and for exploring new business opportunities.

After decades of seclusion from the global weapons market, Japanese companies are determined to impose themselves as critical weapons suppliers, turning Japanese advanced technological expertise into an extremely lucrative source of profit. The recent negotiations between Tokyo and Canberra concerning the $38 billion Defence Procurement deal for the acquisition of 12 next generation Soryou-class submarines would represent an important achievement for the consolidation of Tokyo as a global supplier.

Japanese Companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries ltd. and Kawasaki have traditionally supplied the domestic market, providing equipment for the Japanese Special-Defense Forces (SDF). However, since 2014 Japan has supplied the United States with gyroscopes, critical to enhance Patriot advanced Capability Missiles (PAC2) fire control systems.

There are also plans for a Joint Missile Research programme with the United Kingdom, as well as a series of defence equipment cooperation agreements with France, India, Qatar, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Along with the turning point represented for the Japanese Defence Industry, these agreements would massively expand the opportunities for the aforementioned industries to establish an important legal framework able to facilitate cooperation between Japan and third party countries.

Peace and prosperity

Tokyo’s decision to revise its approach toward defence procurement, weapons exportation, and technology transfer is the direct effect of Japan’s new engagement toward global peace and regional stability, particularly with the US.

Indeed, developing advanced defence capabilities and establishing strategic partnerships for enhancing military hi-tech is a critical strategy to explore lucrative opportunities, but also to provide the outmost contribution to Washington’s regional security architecture.

According to the Strategy on Defence Production and Technological Bases, released by the Japanese Ministry of Defence on June 2014, the development and enhancement of the technological base aims to:

  1. Enhance deterrence given the severe security environment surrounding Japan through the development of a strategic and highly effective joint defence force
  2. Realign with the European and American Defence Industries to improve competitiveness through the standardisation in the production of military hardware and increase the positive output originated by the development of dual-use technology
  3. Establish long-term government-industry partnerships to facilitate an effective level of responsiveness between the Ministry of Defence and the private sector concerning strategic production and technology development priorities.

This vision foreshadows the strengthening of Japan’s Defence Industry and shows Tokyo’s determination to inaugurate strategic ties with regional allies. Moreover, it has been saluted by Washington with great enthusiasm. The new guidelines for US-Japan Defence Cooperation will allow Japan to be an important partner in supporting Washington’s Long Research and Development Plan (LRRPD), a vital pillar of the Defence Innovative Initiative.

Regional considerations

Indeed, the potential of a rising role of the Japanese Defence Industry could be relevant in expanding cooperation with regional allies. Given the strategic expansion of China, whose military spending is estimated to be around $142 billion for 2015, Japan can easily find partners who are interested in boosting their military capabilities.

In retrospect, the rapid deployment of the PLA Navy, coupled with Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, has catalysed Japan’s decision to lift the weapons ban, shaping a new dimension for Japanese regional security engagement. Under this new strategy, the Abe administration is aiming for Japan to achieve an important regional role, given its solid hi-tech base as a weapons manufacturer and supplier.

These recent developments will strengthen Japan’s security and achieve another step in the ambitious process of defence normalisation. Undeniably, the political situation and Japan’s technological capabilities and economic resources are coming together, yet it could produce unexpected outcomes.

In fact, the security strategy that is shaping Japan’s new regional engagement could ultimately accelerate the weapons race that is currently characterising the Asia Pacific, risking a new level of insecurity that could have dreadful results.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito is a London-based analyst. He is also a GRI analyst and regular contributor for the Foreign Policy Association, where he writes mostly on the Koreas ‘blog. He holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, Japanese politics and Chinese foreign policy. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito.