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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:58 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #148: December 20, 2004

Arms Ban Removal Opens Door to Japanese Weapons Sales to Middle East and Asia

John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)

Acknowledgement by Japan's defense minister that the 35 year-old self-imposed ban on arms exports will "inevitably" be lifted comes as no surprise. The Koizumi administration has consistently sought to embolden Japan's military apparatus and has actively involved Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in missions abroad. The lift of the weapons export ban can be understood as the third phase in a policy that seeks to establish Japan as a military force in East Asia and as a key US ally on security matters in Asia and the Middle East as a whole.

Under the Koizumi administration, the Defense Agency has grown in institutional stature. Today, its minister has much more input into making policy than ever since Japan's surrender in 1945. Regardless of what the Japanese government may say about combat zones the SDF's participation in missions in Afghanistan and Iraq has given its personnel significant training in areas of intense conflict. This experience makes Japanese forces all the more valuable to the United States and other allies as they occupy or contain enemy forces. In terms of the weapons ban, important Japanese arms producers such as Mitsubishi and Kawasaki Heavy Industries argue that the ban is a hindrance to technological cooperation between Japan and its allies. Industry would have us believe that a continuation of the ban would imply Japan being left behind in an extremely competitive and important market. On the other hand, facilitating their emergence on the international scene would propel Japan back to the forefront of defense technology breakthroughs and simultaneously guarantee Japan's national security.

The problem with this analysis is that it is largely a smokescreen for companies that want to profit from a lucrative weapons trade. In all practicality the weapons ban had very little impact on joint ventures between US and Japanese manufacturers throughout its 35 year tenure. The ban includes three principles that prohibit the export of arms or arms related technology to former Communist bloc countries; states under a UN arms embargo; and countries involved or about to enter into international conflicts. It said nothing about and did not prohibit Japanese arms sales to the US, or other allies, and certainly did not have a huge impact on the state of Japan's technological competitiveness.

A lifting of the ban would allow Japan to sell weapon systems to US allies in the Middle East as well as in Southeast and South Asia. These are currently the largest growing weapons markets in the world and also markets were Japan would have considerable leverage considering its political and economic prowess in those regions. It would be no surprise to see Japanese arms exports to Iraq or Afghanistan in the near future. Japan is already providing those countries with supplies such as uniforms, jeeps and perhaps even satellite related technology. Considering Iraq's potential market size and profitability, Japanese arms manufacturers are no doubt interested in getting a piece of the pie in what used to be one of the largest weapons procurers in the Middle East.

The lifting of the weapons ban has, to a large extent, also been justified on grounds that it is necessary for development of the Missile Defense (MD) system. This may well be true, however, a wholesale lifting of the ban is not necessary if this were the case. An amendment could be made to the ban that would allow for collaboration with the US on the Missile Defense system only, leaving in tact the fundamental principles that make up the ban. However, the fact that weapons lobby organizations such as the Defense Production Committee of Japan's Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) are calling for a removal of the ban points to motives that go far beyond the MD system. This is indeed worrisome and furthermore a betrayal of Japan's pacifist constitution and overwhelming public approval for the maintenance of an arms export ban.

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