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Japan’s plan to export arms is lacking ammo

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When U.S. President Donald Trump was here last month, he said Japan should be buying more military hardware from America, and seemed to believe it would. Trump’s penchant for talking off-the-cuff is well-known, but Japan’s reluctance to address the matter forthrightly may have more to do with the fact that the nation now endeavors to be a competitor in the global arms market.

However, since 2014, when the Cabinet issued a directive effectively amending the Three Principles of Arms Exports implemented in 1967, Japan has not been successful in any of its attempts to sell finished military equipment to other countries. The U.K. decided to buy patrol aircraft from the U.S. rather than Japan, and what had seemed like a done deal to send submarines to Australia ended when the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott collapsed.

At present, the Boei Sobi-cho (Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency), an agency set up in 2015 to sell military equipment abroad, is working on several sales the media has characterized as Japan’s last chance to join the international arms merchant club. One is to sell C-2 transport aircraft manufactured by Kawasaki Heavy Industries to the United Arab Emirates, but while it was the UAE who requested the planes in the first place, according to a report in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei), the Three Principles, which are still in effect, prohibit sales of arms to countries currently involved in international conflicts, and UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition attacking forces in Yemen. One Defense Ministry official told Nikkei that it shouldn’t be a problem since UAE is not “leading” the fight.

The government is sensitive about such accusations. Even the name of the new office is a euphemism. Boei Sobi-cho’s English name — Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency — could describe anything. Even in Japanese, it literally means “Defense Equipment Agency,” a term that suggests the manufacture and distribution of parts, which Japan has been doing in one way or another ever since the Korean and Vietnam wars, when sales of materials that could be used for military purposes were central to Japan’s rapid postwar industrial redevelopment.

For five years, meaning even from before the Cabinet directive, Japan has been negotiating sales of US-2 amphibious aircraft to India. A researcher for the defense information provider, Jane’s, told Nikkei last June that he thought “the deal will go through at some point, but we might have grandchildren by the time it happens.”

Everyone seems to agree that the US-2, made by ShinMaywa Industries, is superior in terms of range and capacity and thus especially suitable to the needs of India, which has a long coastline and many remote islands. The sale is also, according to Nikkei, in Japan’s interest since India’s main defense purpose is to check China’s presence in the region.

The sticking point is price. Japan is asking ¥14.3 billion each for 12 planes, and India wants the “establishment of a joint production venture” on its soil, but ShinMaywa isn’t interested in transferring production for the sake of such a small order.

Since the government is desperate for a sale, it may help pay for it. The idea of subsidizing weapons sales by giving incentives to purchasing countries was taken up on a Nov. 10 TV Asahi report, which described a plan to provide Official Development Assistance to countries like Malaysia so that they would be more likely to buy military equipment from Japan. Such a strategy would not only require a larger ODA budget, but also assurances to bail out financially ailing arms manufacturers in order to guarantee parts to customers over the long run.

News outlets have been skeptical about Japan’s prospects in this regard. Even Sankei Shimbun, which tends to support government policy, has been harsh in its reporting of the issue, saying that the Boei Sobi-cho is not up to the job. Since its creation, the agency has had two commissioners, neither of whom has international experience. The agency’s handling of possible sales of radar systems to Thailand is a case in point. Thailand’s present system is superannuated and Mitsubishi Electronics’ FPS-3 seems ideal, but Thailand is also negotiating a purchase of submarines from China, which Sankei believes will try to interfere with the radar deal since it involves Japan.

Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki has made Japan’s arms sales ambitions her main field of interest for the past several years and published a book on the subject. In their desperation to restore Japan’s reputation for superior manufacturing through arms exports, the government, she thinks, fails to see the whole picture. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces were against the Australian submarine deal because of the top-secret technology involved. Australia’s main trading partner, after all, is China.

More to the point, Mochizuki asks if Japan is prepared to receive the kind of condemnation hurled at countries that stake a good portion of their economic well-being on arms sales. Japan’s academic community mostly resists the government’s requests to conduct military-related research, but manufacturers are willing to churn out product — the business lobby Keidanren has been asking the government to ease arms export restrictions for years. However, when Mochizuki speaks to manufacturers they only talk about money and know-how, and never the ultimate purpose of their product, which is to assist in conflicts that invariably kill people. As one executive of a weapons maker told her, these companies, as well as Japanese citizens, have to be ready to be called “merchants of death” and, after 70 years of pacifism, he doesn’t think they are.

Last February, the Network Against Japan Arms Trade petitioned Kawasaki Heavy Industries to not take part in a proposed sale of patrol aircraft to New Zealand. The company told Tokyo Shimbun they couldn’t comment on the petition because such matters are decided by the government, but the deal may be dead in the water anyway.