© Flightglobal/Tim Bicheno-Brown

A Ministry of Defense committee of experts (Defense Manufacturing and Technology Base Research Committee  [防衛生産・技術基盤研究会]), chaired by the well-known Japanese IR analyst Takashi Shiraishi of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, announced in an interim report that Japan should look again at reviewing the collective ban/restrictions on arms exports.1 The main justification put forward for this review is the need to support the maintenance of domestic defense production capabilities and expertise by allowing Japanese companies to participate in international joint development and production of defense equipment, including participation in the manufacturing of next generation fighter jets.2

The interim report emphasised that allowing Japanese companies to participate in international joint development and production would yield a number of benefits. First an increase in interoperability within the US-Japan alliance as well as with many of Japan’s allies. Second, a decrease in development and production costs and an increase in the value for money of Japan’s defense procurement budget, something that is becoming all the more important given the current fiscal difficulties Japan faces. Third, it argues that the current “collective ban” on arms export means that Japan is unable  to acquire the necessary equipment, and particularly state of the art equipment, in a timely fashion and thus continuation of the ban would compromise Japan’s long-term security.

In terms of Japan’s broader defense industry, the report also emphasises the need to be more selective in terms of the investments in weapons systems Japan makes at home. Calling for more “selection” and “concentration” in the Japanese defense industry, the report argues that in order for Japan to acquire the dynamic deterrence/defense capabilities articulated in the National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Build-up Plan, published at the end of last year, Japan needs to select priority areas for investment domestically while participating more internationally in certain weapons systems development projects. Essentially it is an argument for Japan to on the one hand integrate its military industrial capabilities with other countries, and on the other lessen the previously psuedo-autarkic and inefficient approach to defense equipment development and procurement. To this end, the report sets down some criteria for what capabilities Japan should maintain domestically – those of likely future strategic importance, capabilities that would be hard to get back once lost, capabilities that are uniquely related to Japan’s specific defense needs, and a few others.

The final report is due February next year, so perhaps that is an indication of the kind of timetable we are looking at should the restrictions be relaxed, remembering that it only requires a cabinet decision to amend them. It is still important however to put these developments into context.

First of all, if there is a relaxation of the restrictions, it is very unlikely that it would be a complete end to arms export restrictions. The likely outcome would be a relaxation of the restraints implemented by the Miki Cabinet in 1976, but only as far as the original 3 principles of arms exports implemented by the Sato Cabinet in 1967.

To steal something from myself a while ago:

The Sato “ban” restricted Japan from exporting to countries in the Communist Bloc, to countries currently under a UN authorized arms embargo, and countries currently tied up in a military conflict. It seems that the [proposed re-revised] principles will also provide criteria that arms exports should be [limited to] those that may be helpful for peacekeeping and humanitarian purposes, and those that have a low likelihood for inflicting death and harm (perhaps taking the two together then the focus will be on military infrastructure, high-tech weaponry such as BMD and fighter jets not used against civilian populations, rather than shooting weapons as such). The criteria will allow Japan  to participate in the joint development and manufacture of arms with NATO countries, countries like South Korea and Australia that have a strong commitment to restricting arms proliferation including weapons of mass destruction, and those countries who have systems in place that prevent the unauthorized transfer of weapons and weapons technology to third parties.

Secondly, given the above context, this could have some very interesting follow-on implications including potential decisions that would need to be made in regards to Japan’s future defense commitments. Might the relaxation of the arms ban lead to de facto alliance diversification? This is not necessarily a bad thing on its own to be sure and for Japanese defense planners possibly part of the intent. Alliance diversification could lead to Japan relying less on the US for its defense needs. However there are some potential pitfalls. For example, if Japan was to select the F-35 as its next generation fighter later this year, and Japan proves to be successful  in negotiating for the fighter or parts of the fighter to be manufactured in Japan, what will happen if the US sells a number of these fighters to India? (Go here for a very interesting analysis by David Axe of why Japan is committed, and may remain committed, to its own indigenous fighter program, the ATD-X or shinshin 心神)

On the one hand, Japan-India defense ties have already been increasing lately, and as the above report indicated, this could have positive implications for interoperability with allies. However, given the likely relaxation of the arms restrictions would still place limitations on to which countries such weapons or equipment can be sold to, how will Japan get around the fact that India is not a signatory to the NPT?  Many countries, including Japan, do after all have misgivings about India’s nuclear program and its impact upon proliferation, indirect (ie on Pakistan) or otherwise. There are also suspicions that India may not be the safest pair of hands in terms of the possibility that the technology may end up elsewhere – for example in Russia, where India may look at the joint development of a fifth-generation fighter.

There are of course other questions that might need to be thought through: Would Japan be able to legally or diplomatically prevent the sale of a joint-produced F-35 to India by the US, and perhaps as importantly, would it want to? How will this play out in terms of Japan’s relationship with China? China has for the most part accepted the necessity for regional stability of the US-Japan alliance (although some suspect the Chinese no longer see the “silver lining” of the US-Japan relationship anyway), and even for Japan’s own security. Would a more proactive India-Japan tie-up complicate the Sino-Japanese relationship further by raising eyebrows in Beijing? Or would it restore balance to the strategic competition, from a Japanese point of view? China is probably less concerned with US-Japan BMD collaboration and SM-3 Block IIA export- as it is India already has its own BMD program through collaboration with Israel. It might however have implications for Japan’s relationship with Russia given the potential sale of the SM-3 to NATO countries  (although this is now ultimately a moot point as Japan has already agreed to an “exception” that will allow SM-3 missile export, albeit with Japan’s permission).

Of course avoiding dealing with these complications (by not modifying the arms export restraints and/or promoting a refocusing of the Japanese defense sector) will also have implications. While some may want to double down on the restraints, it is hard to see how in the long-term Japan could avoid having to decide whether to increase the informal 1% defense spending cap in order to guarantee for itself a minimum level of security, or rely more on the US-Japan alliance to secure the nation. The status quo seems untenable given stagnant economic performance, rising geopolitical tensions (despite Japan’s low-profile security diplomacy), and fiscal challenges. In addition to these political economic challenges is the practical need for greater and greater economies of scale to efficiently support defense equipment research, development, and manufacturing given increasing sophistication of militaries world wide and inevitable technological innovation.

The raising of the 1% cap will be a significant problem domestically, both in terms of the acquisition of fiscal resources but also in terms of symbolic politics, while the latter (increasing dependence on the US-Japan alliance) is completely against the general direction Japan’s foreign policy has been progressing for the last 10, and some may say, 35 years. And as it is, the US is likely, given its own fiscal problems, to request larger and larger contributions to host nation support for maintaining the alliance, effectively putting Japan in the same situation but with none of the autonomy it desires.

The latter could also be particularly problematic should a future US administration with a more activist global foreign policy come into power and make demands on Japan’s alliance commitments. Perhaps more likely and even more importantly, it would not be surprising if a more dependent Japan had problems with and started to question the wisdom of the/a US approach to dealing with China, especially should it place too much emphasis on the containment aspect and upset Japan’s own hedging policy towards China. To this day a number of Japanese analysts still harbour concerns that the US might be trying to maintain its primacy in East Asia beyond the point that even its allies are happy with. Of course recent provocations around the South China sea would suggest that some countries see continued US primacy as desirable. But whether the current tensions persist does depend on whether recent and more aggressive Chinese foreign policy is a symptom of internal political manoeuvring and the Chinese military acting more independently of the civilian leadership, or part of a deliberate long-term Chinese policy to start chipping away at the regional security order, as well as the perception of regional players of this problem.

Clearly, much to think about.

1 Find both the full interim report and the outline (in Japanese) here

2 Jiji and Yomiuri (both Japanese) articles on the proposals to relook at the restrictions. 

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 51 post(s) on Japan Security Watch