GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 866, 1 April 2024

Global Politics Explainer: Japan approves the export of defence equipment to other countries. Why?
Akhil Ajith

What has Japan agreed to export, and why?
On 26 March, the Japanese cabinet officially agreed to export next-generation future-generation fighter aircraft jets to other countries as part of its defence equipment export plans, shifting from its pacifist stance adopted post-World War 2. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida approved the updated guidelines of the “three principles on the transfer of defence equipment and technology” after his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, the Komeito party, agreed on the revised export rules on 15 March. The revised export guidelines were meant to allow the export of fighter aircraft jets that Japan plans to co-develop with the UK and Italy. The latest revised rules will allow Japan to export lethal weapons and their parts to countries with which it has signed military agreements. Also, the rule will enable Japan to export weapons to countries that are not participating in any war.

The Potential defence markets for Japan include 15 countries with which it has signed defense partnership agreements, such as the US, Germany, India, and Vietnam. Japan has an edge in producing certain defence products that can gain a significant presence in international markets, such as the Soryu-class diesel-electric submarines, transport and maritime patrol aircrafts such as P-1 anti-submarine jets, Kawasaki C-2 transport jet, and US-2 search and rescue seaplane. It also has advanced patrol boats and anti-ship missiles, which it has sold to Vietnam and the Philippines for its coastal defense.

What has been Japan's earlier position on exporting? Why has it changed now?
Post-World War 2, Japan adopted a pacifist stance, restricting the country from exporting any defence equipment to other countries. Because of its past in WW2 as an aggressor and the aftermath of large-scale destruction, Japan adopted a constitution that limited the size and scope of its military for purely self-defence purposes and banned the export and technology transfer of military equipment to other countries.

In 1967, Japan adopted the Three Principles on Arms Exports, which prohibited the transfer of arms to communist bloc countries, countries under UN arms embargoes, and countries involved in or likely to be involved in international conflicts. In 1976, the Japanese government completely banned defence exports, although an exception was made for transferring military technologies to the US. In 2014, the Three Principles on Arms Exports were revised and adopted by the former PM Shinzo Abe-led government, which extended the scope of defence exports to other countries. On 22 December 2023, the Japanese government opened the door to export lethal weapons to the US and other countries. 

Japan’s decision to change defence export rules is due to the East Asian region's witnessing geopolitical uncertainties with the rising threats from China, Russia, and North Korea. China’s assertive claim over Japan’s Senkaku Islands and its aggression in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea have created greater security concerns along with North Korea’s nuclear threats and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Japan intends to use its defence exports as a deterrence tool to ensure greater security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. To complement this policy, Japan has agreed to boost its defence budget by 16 per cent to USD 56 billion for the 2024 fiscal year. The rapidly changing external environment has forced Japan to revise the 2022 National Defense Strategy, which allows Japan not only to export defence exports but also to facilitate its domestic industries to ensure adequate supplies of weapons and ammunition in wartime.

Furthermore, Japan’s arms sales will drive its stagnant economy, which has barely witnessed any major economic reform and macroeconomic diversification of its economy. Although its defence industry is nascent and caters mainly to domestic demand, it can prove to be a catalyst to address the country’s structural economic issues. Despite the higher prices of its defence products due to lower economies of scale and higher labour costs, Japan can emerge as a new defence player in the global arms market.

Japan also felt the need to expand the existing guidelines as it would hinder the progress of the co-development of its GCAP program and would limit Japan to a supporting role. Exporting defence equipment will mark a remarkable shift as it will boost the country’s defence industry, which has only catered to the demands of its self-defence forces. 

Is there a consensus within Japan to reorient its defence exports?
The ruling party, LDP, highly favours the export of Japan’s defence products, which has faced criticism from opposition parties, pacifist activists, and its junior coalition partner, the Komeito party. The Komeito party is backed by Buddhist supporters and is committed to pacifist principles which shapes its identity and its political support. Unlike the opposition parties, Komeito pressed for a more cautious approach by limiting the export categories and adding conditions on buyers on terms of use. The public is, however, divided over the country’s intent to export weapons to third countries. 

According to a poll released by the Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) in March 2024, around 54 per cent of the respondents approved the export of co-developed defence equipment to be exported to third countries under certain conditions, while 32 per cent of the respondents were against such exports. The Japan News Network (JNN) polls reveal that 57 per cent of Komeito supporters were against such export guidelines.

It will be interesting to see how the public debate on Japan’s recent defence export policy guidelines influences the political environment. The LDP remains concerned about Komeito as a reliable coalition partner. For Komeito, it will be in their interest to delay the negotiations or not allow LDP to bring larger changes to avoid losing its existing supporters. As PM Kishida said, a change is needed in the regional security environment, so Japan needs to be better prepared to address new challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.

Sato Heigo, “Japan’s New Arms Export Policy: An Unfinished Breakthrough,”, 27 March 2024)
Mari Yamaguchi, “
Why is Japan changing its ban on exporting lethal weapons, and why is it so controversial?,” Associated Press, 26 March 2024
Japan eases weapon export rules to allow the sale of fighter jets,” The Japan Times, 26 March 2024)
Jesse Johnson, Gabriel Dominguez and Gabriele Ninivaggi, “
Japan's ruling coalition approves export of future joint fighter jet,” The Japan Times, 15 March 2024
Japan eases curbs on weapons exports, raises defence budget to record $56bn,” Al Jazeera, 22 December 2023
Mina Pollmann, “
Japan Takes Another Step Toward Expanding Defense Exports,” The Diplomat, 11 July 2023.

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