The Cabinet on Tuesday approved eased principles and guidelines for weapons exports, ending a strict ban that lasted nearly 50 years as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sets the stage for Japan to play a more active role in global security.

The newly adopted three principles on the transfer of defense equipment prohibit Japan from exporting arms to countries involved in conflict and to those that violate U.N. resolutions. However, Japanese firms will be able to export weapons when the deals pass government screenings, a major policy change from the previous rule of banning arms exports to all countries, apart from a few exceptions.

The new principles state that Japan will continue to embrace the basic philosophy of a pacifist state that abides by the U.N. Charter, but the change in rules has sparked concern that the nation’s trade in weapons could expand in the future.

Arms exports will be allowed only if they serve the purpose of contributing to international cooperation and security interests, such as for United Nations peace-building missions. In another example, patrol vessels can be exported to countries along sea lanes to ensure the safe flow of natural resources.

When exports are allowed, the government is supposed to impose strict screenings and make the process transparent. The unstated use and transfer of Japanese equipment to third parties will also be kept in check, according to the principles. The government will oblige partner states to gain Japan’s consent for unstated use of Japanese defense equipment or their transfer to third parties.

“Japan has proactively contributed to international peace. And this stance won’t change moving forward,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said after the Cabinet meeting. The Defense, Foreign, and Economy, Trade and Industry ministries will normally conduct screenings. When deals are considered important and require caution, the final decision will be made by the National Security Council, the body launched in December to speed up decision-making on defense and foreign policy.

To make the process transparent, METI is to publish annual reports on defense equipment approved for export, and disclose information on deals discussed by the NSC.

Miho Aoi, a professor of constitutional law at Gakushuin University who has closely watched the arms export issue, questioned whether the government can really make sure that exported equipment isn’t passed on to third parties without Japan’s consent.

“It’s easy to say they’ll do it, but the government will have to spend a lot of money and manpower,” Aoi said. “We must watch closely if the government can really implement a system to thoroughly check” where exported weapons ultimately end up.

The so-called three principles on arms exports were adopted in 1967, when Prime Minister Eisaku Sato declared Japan would prohibit weapons exports to communist countries, countries subject to arms embargoes under U.N. resolutions and countries involved in or feared to be involved in international conflicts.

The principles were tightened into a blanket ban in 1976 by Prime Minister Takeo Miki.

The ban started to fray in 1983, however, when the government allowed Japanese companies to provide weapons technology to the United States as an exception. Since then, 21 “exceptions” have been made by chief Cabinet secretaries issuing a statement, one of which in 2013 allowed Japanese companies to take part in developing the F-35 fighter.

In 2011, the government relaxed the rules to allow exports for humanitarian and peaceful purposes, and to make it easier to participate in joint development and production of weapons.

Information from Kyodo added

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