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

Yasuo Ichikawa, Japan’s latest Defense Minister, has stated that Japan will continue to look into modifying Japan’s unofficial arms export ban.

In the wake of calls for a review of Japan’s longstanding ban on arms exports, Ichikawa said at a news conference there is “room” for studying how to deal with the ban in light of changes in the global environment involving weapons “without bending the principle of being a peaceful nation.” (Link)

The arms ban is governed by what are known as the “Three Principles”. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs describes them as follows:

“arms exports to the following countries or regions shall not be permitted”:

(1) communist bloc countries,
(2) countries subject to “arms” exports embargo under the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions, and
(3) countries involved in or likely to be involved in international conflicts. (Link)

The regulations, which mention the “communist bloc”, obviously stem from the Cold War. And they would appear to not apply to a majority of countries. However, in application, the ban was informally extended to all countries — even friendly ones — with the exception of the United States. And while it means that Japan could not sell weapons to, for example, Moammar Ghadafi, it also applies to joint weapons development that may result in overseas sales, i.e. jointly developing fighters with France that France would wish to sell on the global arms market.

Under the outline, Japan will “consider measures to deal with major changes” in the international environment involving weapons, citing a trend among advanced nations to conduct joint development or production of arms as a way to cut costs and improve quality.

Ichikawa’s predecessor, Toshimi Kitazawa, had advocated reviewing the arms export ban, saying the ban has prevented the country’s defense industry from participating in joint international technological development, potentially putting it at a disadvantage in the race for defense business.

Contrary to popular belief, the export of arms is not a part of Japan’s constitution. It is actually just a policy decision, and can be easily overturned by the government without a constitutional amendment.

The immediate motivator for changing the ban is the SM-3 Block 2A missile. The SM-3, designed to shoot down ballistic missiles, is currently under joint development with the United States. In and of itself this is not a problem due to the U.S.’ exceptional status, but the United States wants the right to export the missile — which would make Japan an exporter as well. (See this article for a good explanation.) The Ministry of Defense has decided to make an exception and waive the ban in order to let the United States sell the missile to third parties.

The long-term motivator for revising the ban is that weapons development is extremely expensive, and Japan is not able to offset development costs by co-developing with foreign countries or exporting arms abroad. Being able to develop the ATD-X fighter with Sweden, for example, would be a great way to reduce the development costs to Japan.

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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 536 post(s) on Japan Security Watch