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Eased Arms Export Ban: Changed and Unchanged

Apr 22 , 2014

The Japanese government’s recent approval of the new “principles and guidelines on the transfer of defense equipment” has triggered media uproar calling the move an abandonment of the Three Principles on Arms Export, which was set in 1967, but later evolved into an actual ban of weaponry exports, hence a desertion of the pacific road the country had followed after the end of the World War II. However, the old Three Principles had long become something for show only. Now, it is only too natural for the ornament to be replaced, which, as Shinzo Abe argues, has become “out of fashion”.

Americans should not feel surprised at the change, for it was none other than the United States that encouraged Japan to break the commandment 30 years ago. At that time, the Reagan administration wanted Tokyo to assume more security responsibility, thus the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force was authorized to carry out patrols in waters 1,000 nautical miles off the coast. As a result, the number of P-3Cs maritime patrolling aircraft licensed by Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Lockheed Martin increased dramatically in Japan’s armed forces. Ronald Reagan also persuaded the former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to exclude the U.S. from the prohibited destinations of export of Japanese defense technologies. From then on, Japanese military technologies kept flowing into the U.S., such as SAM portable air defense missile, naval shipbuilding, radar equipment in the FS-X fighter cooperative production project and the digital-controlled flight technology for the improved model of P-3C. In 1985, Nakasone also took part in Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or the so-called “Star War Plan.”

Arms trade between Japan and the U.S. has never ceased over the past 30 years. In 2004, Japan’s arms export to the U.S. made a landmark breakthrough promoted by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. In December that year, the Japanese government officially joined the Ballistic Missile Defense project initiated by the U.S. Though Americans undertook the designing of the weaponry systems and the project’s core technologies, such as dynamic warheads and radar systems, Japanese technologies were also widely adopted in the project. Japan’s arms manufacturers won large chunks of orders and the weaponry parts developed by them were transferred to their American partners unrestrictedly. To dodge restriction by the policies, the Koizumi administration announced that the BMD project was not within the ban of arms export.

In other areas, such as Southeast Asia, exports of Japanese weapons also evaded the Three Principles. Of course this was done with a necessary trick. That is, call a spade non-spade, or a weapon non-weapon, as Koizumi did. Japan is undoubtedly the most adroit in playing such an Orwellian newspeak-style gimmick, just as it did with its army. It calls its fifth world-ranked armed forces not an army, but a Self-Defense Force.

Tokyo obviously has a very innovative mind. Starting from 2006, it has associated its Coast Guard with Japan’s foreign aid programs. The Japan Coast Guard helped train Southeast Asian countries’ marine forces and provided them with technological supports. The JCG is actually Japan’s fourth armed force after the army, navy and air force but has been portrayed as a police department. Japan’s foreign aid authorities set up an anti-terrorism institutional fund, which has financed purchases of six patrol boats; three for Indonesia and three for the Philippines. Tokyo says the aid did not violate the arms export ban as the boats carry no weaponry and are used only for coastal patrol, though the vessels are armor-plated.

Given the aforementioned facts, the claim that the new principles announced on April 1 was a substantive change from the old principles has to be called nothing but an overstatement. Just like what Tokyo has done to erode the pacifist Constitution and the self-defense limitation bit by bit, Japan’s pacifist skin marked by the Three Principles of arms export ban has long been peeled off piece by piece.

If there has been anything that did change, that was the growing worries among the Japanese people. On April 6, visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Abe that the U.S. “welcomes” Tokyo’s plan to revise the Constitution to allow the Self-Defense Force to exercise the right to collective self-defense. The following day, The Asahi Shimbun published a poll about the revision plan. According to the poll, 63 percent of the public agreed that Japan “should keep from exercising the right to collective self-defense,” nearly 10 percent more than a year ago. Only 12 percent agree that the Abe administration can “change the interpretation of the Constitution to fulfill the objective of exercising the right to collective self-defense.” Another 29 percent of the respondents opted for “exercising (of the right) tolerable,” but half of them said that as a prerequisite, Japan “needs to obtain understanding from neighboring countries.” Commenting on Article 9 of the Constitution, which has been viewed as the symbol of Japan’s pacifist spirit after World War II, 64 percent of the poll respondents chose “better not to revise it,” a remarkable rise from last year’s 52 percent, while a meagerly 29 percent opted for “better to revise it.” Opponents of the plan to change the arms export ban rose from 71 percent last year to 77 percent.

Japanese public’s worries over the Abe administration’s feverish pursuit of military build-up should not be ignored. If Abe, with support from the majority in the Diet, eventually has the “cabinet decision” approved on the issues of arms export and the right to collective self-defense, things will not end there. Constitution Article 9, pacifist heritage and all other “hindrances” to Abe’s military expansion will be removed. In the end, not only the Japanese people’s will, but also the post-war world order led by the U.S., will be dumped. In a few years, it may dawn to the world that on April Fool’s Day 2014, Japan was truly changing the course of history.

Jin Ying is a Research Associate at the Institute of Japanese Studies at CASS.

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