The Land of the Rising Military-Industrial Complex: Peace-loving Japan’s endangered arms export ban

We are a peace-loving nation, but everyone else is making money from selling weapons of death and destruction, so why can’t we?

Japan’s frustrated military industry wouldn’t put it as bluntly as that, for obvious reasons, but that’s what its argument for the relaxation of the country’s ban on arms exports boils down to.

And its mouthpieces in business, academia, media and politics have the task of persuading public opinion that the weakening of the ban is not only necessary to ensure Japan’s security and prosperity, but will help the country to fulfill its responsibility to promote international peace and security.

Business stifled

In a February 8, 2008 article titled “Japanese military export ban stifling business, warns industry,” Jane’s, a leading military and intelligence publisher, reported that the Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) was pushing for a change in a law that prohibits the export of arms and arms-related equipment and technology.

“We are insisting on a revision of the ‘Three Principles’ policy because it is limiting development opportunities for Japanese defence firms,” a Nippon Keidranren spokesman told Jane’s. “We [Nippon Keidanren] do not represent a few defence companies. Our official position is that we represent the total Japanese defence industry sector, and Japanese defence companies are saying to us that they want this policy changed to enable them to participate in more technology development projects with overseas companies.”

A follow-up article in Jane’s on 25 February 2009, however, conveyed the bad news for the industry that the government “had no plans to review” the “Three Principles” policy. Explaining that the issue was politically “sensitive,” a Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) official cited a government policy statement: “[Japan] will continue to firmly maintain its policy of dealing with arms exports control carefully, in light of Japan’s basic philosophy as a peace-loving nation on which the Three Principles on arms exports and their related policy guidelines are based.”

The article, titled “Japan export ban leaves industry ‘at a standstill,'” noted that in addition to the Keidanren, the Japanese Research Institute for Peace and Security (RIPS) had also called for a lifting of the ban over the past year.

Left Behind

Established by the Japan Defense Agency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1978 “to provide the Japanese government with policy recommendations from an independent and objective viewpoint,” RIPS describes itself as a “private research institute.”

In November 2008, RIPS published a policy paper entitled “Japan’s New Strategy as an Arms Exporter: Revising the Three Principles on Arms Exports” by Yukari Kubota, a part-time lecturer at Osaka University, and a fellow of RIPS’ Security Studies Fellowship Program from 2000 to 2002.

Because the Three Principles were conceived in 1967 during the Cold War era, Kubota argues, the policy is “no longer feasible” in today’s changed security environment. Citing the increased “international cooperation in major defense projects” by the United States and the NATO countries since the end of the Cold War, she notes that the U.S. Department of Defense “now places a high premium on interoperability.” This development, she claims, has been spurred by post-Cold War defense budget cuts.

While the Japanese government made an exception to its arms export ban to allow its participation in the missile defense project with the United States, Kubota worries that the Americans might “seek suppliers in other countries that have few legal constraints on the sales of arms.” She warns that “unless Japan revises its attitude toward multilateral defense and technological cooperation,” this could lead to the U.S. turning away from Japan toward its NATO allies, possibly damaging the U.S.-Japan strategic relationship, which she asserts — without any evidence — “would not be desirable for Japan’s national interests.”

Kubota also expresses concern that the arms ban means that Japan’s military industry will be left behind in “setting international technological trends and standards.” The industry is further disadvantaged, she points out, because “Japanese users have had no tactical experience (and thus have no market data), and Japanese-made weapons have not been tested in combat, whereas the United States has accumulated decades of information and has had many opportunities to test its defense systems.” Indeed, they have.

On its website, RIPS acknowledges that it has collaborated with a number of “overseas research institutes” such as the Atlantic Council of the United States (ACUS).
The ACUS 2008 corporate program membership, sounding like a Who’s Who of the military-industrial complex, includes industry giants Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman.

Pressing for change

Opponents of the arms export ban have staunch supporters in influential sections of the Japanese media. In a June 10, 2009 editorial entitled “It’s time to relax rules on arms export, R&D”, Japan’s largest circulation daily, the Yomiuri Shimbun declared, “It seems high time the government conducts a thorough review of its arms export restrictions in response to the shifting situation on the world stage and advancements in military technology.”

In the editorial, the Yomiuri, which has been in the forefront of those arguing for a revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution, endorsed the proposals made by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s National Defense Division subcommittee to relax “the nation’s three principles on weapons exports in connection with a revision of the National Defense Program Guidelines scheduled to be undertaken by the end of this year.”

The huge cost of research and development of high-tech weapons such as fighter jets and unmanned drones, the Yomiuri adds, has led to a growing trend whereby such projects involve more than one nation. Japan’s arms restrictions, the paper notes, prevent it from taking part in joint projects such as the development of the F-35 stealth fighter. The editorial expresses concern that if Japan decides to buy the F-35, “it will have to wait longer and pay more for them than the countries involved in the joint development project.”

The Yomiuri also urges readers to spare a thought for the “the financial situation of the nation’s defense-related companies.” It quotes a recent Defense Ministry survey, which found that “35 companies related to the production of tanks and 20 companies related to the production of fighter planes have either quit the arms business or gone out of business in the past five years.”

A Piece of the Pie

Despite the Yomiuri’s concern for the country’s supposedly ailing military industry, and notwithstanding Japan’s self-styled status as a “peace-loving nation,” with its constitutional declaration that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,” a number of Japanese manufacturers have done quite well for themselves supplying the world’s fifth most expensive military.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), of the top 100 arms-producing companies in the world in 2007, four were Japanese. They were Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (22nd), Mitsubishi Electric (64th), NEC (79th) and Kawasaki Heavy Industries (85th).

And only Japan’s increasingly endangered Three Principles on Arms Exports stands between them and the rest of the Japanese military industry and a far larger slice of the world’s most profitable pie.