On April 1, three weeks before President Obama’s arrival in Tokyo, Japan announced the revision of its arms export principles to allow the country to play a more active role in regional and international security efforts. This revision comes after nearly 50 years of a self-imposed ban on weapons exports, during which time Japan’s arms export decisions were based on case-by-case exceptions. The updated policy is intended to facilitate Japan’s participation in joint defense development and production projects with key partners and allies, and could strengthen US-Japan security alliance cooperation.
The announcement updates guidelines that were established in 1967. Referred to as the ‘three principles,’ the original guidelines prohibited weapons transfers to communist countries, countries subject to UN arms embargoes, and countries involved – or likely to be involved – in international conflicts. In 1976, these export restrictions were extended, in effect creating a blanket ban on arms exports to all countries. The new weapons export policy affirms the existing three principles that prohibit Japanese arms exports to countries that violate international treaties that Japan is party to, countries that have violated UN Security Council resolutions, and countries involved in international conflict – as determined by the UN Security Council. The revised principles also state that Japan will require recipient countries to have sufficient weapon technology control systems, so as to protect against the potential misuse of weapons and to align with Japan’s stated vision of international peace and security.
The policy could allow Japan to become a more robust defense partner to the United States, as it is anticipated to deepen alliance cooperation, as suggested in the 2013 Joint Statement of the Security Consultative Committee. The Joint Statement includes increased emphasis on coordination for equipment and technology to broaden and deepen alliance cooperation, including equipment acquisition collaboration, as well as defense equipment and technology cooperation. The 2013 Joint Statement particularly encouraged US-Japan equipment and technology collaboration through the participation of Japanese industries in the 11-nation F-35 aircraft development program. The Japanese government approved domestic production and export of F-35 components in 2013, and the country is slated to receive 28 of the fighter jets by 2018.
Japan’s policy found support from the United States after its release. Marie Harf, Deputy Spokesperson of the US Department of State, said in an April 2 press briefing, “We welcome this revised Japanese policy on defense equipment exports. It expands opportunities and simplifies processes for defense industry cooperation with the US and other partner nations.”
As alliance partners, the US and Japan have been involved in joint defense technology development programs since the mid-1980s, beginning with joint ballistic missile defense technology development. However, Japan’s involvement in this and similar projects was limited due to the exceptions-based nature of the previous policy. The new policy allows for increased joint development projects and thus for more integrated technology, as well as greater industrial cooperation between Japan and US defense sectors, in turn allowing for broader alliance relations and closer security coordination.
While Japan may experience a number of near-term benefits from the revisions, such as strengthened relations with the US and increased partnership opportunities with neighboring states, it is important that the Japanese government be mindful of the future impacts that may stem from increased arms exports over time.
In eliminating the ban on arms exports, Japan will need to employ increased weapons export assurances to guarantee that future arms transfers do not inadvertently promote an idea of justified armaments in the name of peace. Japan’s intention is to enhance cooperation between its partners and neighboring states in order to respond to potential disasters and conflict.
Japan has a proven track record for diligent arms export controls. Japan is a member of the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Missile Technology Control Regime, and is close to completing its domestic ratification process for the Arms Trade Treaty. These regimes include clear export control standards and processes for arms sales authorizations and denials. Such standards will help shape Japan’s new arms export policy in years to come.
Time will tell how Japan’s domestic dialogue on its new arms export policy will shift the country’s role in the global arms market in the coming years. Japan will need to address the long-term considerations of how to balance a greater role in international security efforts without implicitly advocating for a more weaponized international system. As this dialogue continues, partners such as the US can support Japan’s efforts to carefully examine the impact of each of these decisions, as Japan strives to strengthen its contributions to international peace and security.