Japan on Tuesday adopted new principles and guidelines on arms exports, the first major overhaul in nearly half a century of its arms embargo policy, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set the stage for the country to play a more active role in global security.
Despite concern that the new policy change will hurt the country’s status as a pacifist state, the Cabinet approved the rules that update the so-called “three principles” on restricting arms exports in the Cold War era, and give more clarity and leeway to the country’s weapons export policy.
The newly adopted three principles on the transfer of defense equipment state that Japan will continue to embrace the basic philosophy of a pacifist state that abides by the U.N. Charter.
Under the new principles, Japan will prohibit the export of weapons to countries involved in conflicts. The ban will also apply when exports violate U.N. resolutions.
Japan will allow arms exports only if they serve the purpose of contributing to international cooperation and its security interests.
Even when exports are allowed, Japan plans 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.
Abe is reworking the country’s defense and security policy to deal with new security threats, and the new guidelines are one of his major policy goals.
He is expected to decide whether to reinterpret the war-renouncing Constitution to enable Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense and defend an ally under armed attack, namely the United States.
Before Tuesday’s approval, the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito party called on the government to ensure Japan would not help countries involved in conflicts, and would disclose information on arms export deals to the public.
Opinion polls have indicated the public in Japan is unsure about the decades-old guidelines being changed, fearing a lack of clear limits on arms exports could undermine the pacifist stance.
Under the new scheme, the defense, foreign and trade ministries will normally conduct screenings. The National Security Council, a body launched in December to speed up decision-making on defense and foreign policy, will decide whether to allow exports when deals are considered important and require caution.
The government will publish annual reports on defense equipment approved by the ministries for exports, and also disclose information on deals discussed by the NSC.
Adopted in 1967, and turned into a virtual blanket ban in 1976, the “three principles” on arms exports have turned into a symbol of the country’s pacifist stance.
As the security environment has changed since the end of the Cold War, there have been calls for Japan to review its arms embargo policy rather than making “exceptions” to the rules.
Japan has long banned the transfer of weapons to communist states, countries subject to embargoes under U.N. resolutions and those involved in international conflicts.
In 2011, Japan relaxed the rules to allow exports for humanitarian and peaceful purposes, and to make it easier to participate in the joint development and production of weapons.