SM-3 missile launched from JS Kirishima during exercise Stellar Taka, October 2010. U.S. Department of Defense photo.

Japan’s arms export ban effectively means that Japan and Japan’s industry cannot export weapons abroad. The law explicitly bans the sale of Japanese weapons, from rifles to warships to foreign governments. It also bans the transfer of weapons technology. While the law was liberalized several years ago to allow for cooperation with the United States and American firms on bilateral defense projects, 99.9% of the law is still up and remains a barrier for Japan to sell things to or conduct joint weapon development with everyone from Norway to North Korea.

It’s been suggested lately that the Japanese government further relax the arms export ban. Suggestions have been pretty broad, from dropping it altogether to loosening it so that Japan and Japanese countries can work with other countries and their defense industries. A major problem with the exception made for the Americans is that, unlike the Japanese, the Americans tend to make weapons and then shop them around. This selling to third parties is not explicitly granted in the exception, so it is prohibited. Why then would the Americans want to develop weapons with Japan if they couldn’t turn around and sell them?

Earlier this month that problem reared its ugly head and torpedoed a joint U.S. – Japanese project: developing software that would allow Aegis-equipped warships to better function in the Ballistic Missile Defense mission. Japan had insisted that the U.S. government obtain prior consent before selling it to other countries. The United States, after failing to get Japan to budge on the issue, has decided to develop the software on its own.

According to multiple Japanese Defense Ministry sources, negotiations started last spring. Talks fell through last autumn after the two sides failed to narrow differences over Japan’s insistence on prior consent.

Then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda issued a statement in 2004 which stated that if Japan engaged “in joint development and production of ballistic missile defense systems with the United States … the Three Principles (on Arms Exports) will not be applied, under the condition that strict control is maintained.”

The three principles are that exports will not be permitted to: communist-bloc countries, countries subject to arms export embargoes by the United Nations Security Council, and countries involved in or likely to be involved in international conflicts.

Fukuda’s statement, issued upon signing of a memorandum of understanding by the two sides, loosened those principles. However, in line with Fukuda’s insistence on “strict control,” the memorandum of understanding included a clause which prohibited the use of jointly developed systems for purposes other than those initially intended or the transfer of the systems to third countries without prior consent from the Japanese government. (Link)

The Japanese government loosened the “3 Principles” to allow for joint development and even sale to third parties, but the United States was still not agreeable to the Japanese proposal. What would have been involved?

Under the agreement, the Japanese foreign minister and U.S. ambassador to Japan would have to sign official documents prior to the actual export of a specific item. The Japanese side would have to gain Cabinet approval for suspending the three principles.

You can’t blame the United States from walking away from that. Every time the United States would want to sell the software abroad, the Foreign Minister and the U.S. Ambassador would have to sign formal agreements, and then Japanese government would have to come to a standstill to debate the sale of a computer program. It’s a needlessly complicated procedure (kind of like my signing away my rights to the family plot in Hiroshima several years ago– still annoyed about that one.)

The failure to come to an agreement over the software may have hit a nerve in Japanese government, because a week after the joint software agreement failed, an article appeared in the Yomiuri Shimbun quoting unnamed sources in the Japanese government saying that Japan would indeed allow the United States to transfer the advanced SM-3 Block IIA surface-to-air to foreign countries after all. SM-3 Block IIA is the latest evolution of the Standard missile that adds a more complete anti-BMD capability, and is expected to begin testing around 2015. It’s only a theory, but it seems plausible that the Japanese government, for whom BMD defense is the #1 security mission, worried that the U.S. would actually cancel Block IIA early if Japan couldn’t promise relaxed export controls for it.

Publicly, the Japanese government is still going through the motions of having to run foreign sales of SM-3 Block IIA through the constitutional/bureaucratic ringer. You can hear them now: It will be difficult. We promise to do our utmost. But if the Yomiuri’s sources are to be believed, it’s already a done deal, and Japan will, sometime later in this decade, make it’s first overseas sale of a weapons system in seventy years.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch