Ditching a long-standing policy that in principle prohibited Japanese exports of weapons, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 1 introduced a new three-point rule that could increase weapons exports without limits. The new arms export policy could alter the pacifist posture of Japan under its war-renouncing Constitution by creating a Japanese footprint in international conflicts. The Abe administration should be censured for effectively throwing away the arms export ban — an important diplomatic asset that has earned the nation trust from the international community.

The new policy will weaken Japan’s soft power. Japan’s credibility in the area of arms reduction and disarmament was bolstered by the weapons-export ban. It will no longer be able to fulfill this vital role once it becomes an arms exporter.

The government and the public need to realize that the new policy could result in Japanese weapons being used in international conflicts, thus making Japan an indirect party to such conflicts. This could prompt some countries or groups to regard Japan as an enemy and lead them to launch terrorist attacks on Japanese soil. It’s also possible that Japanese arms could be re-exported to third parties and fall into the hands of groups or countries that are hostile to Japan.

The weapons-export ban was originally introduced in 1967, when Prime Minister Eisaku Sato declared in the Diet that Japan would prohibit the export of weapons to communist countries, nations subjected to arms embargo under United Nations resolutions and countries involved or those that could become involved in international conflicts.

In 1976, Prime Minister Takeo Miki extended the arms export ban to all countries. But the ban has been eased step by step by successive administrations since the 1980s. There are now 21 exceptions to the ban — each one having been introduced with a statement by the chief Cabinet secretary.

The main exceptions include provision of weapons technologies to the United States, joint development of missile defense system with the U.S., joint development or production of weapons with other countries on the condition that the nations have cooperative security relations with Japan and that such activities contribute to Japan’s security or international peace. Japanese makers also have taken part in the U.S.-led international scheme for sharing parts for production of F-35 stealth fighter jets.

The previous policy overall helped prevent Japan from becoming a party to international conflicts while putting a brake on Japanese firms’ defense business overseas. Abe’s new policy on weapons exports marks a turnaround in its basic nature from the past policy. Although it imposes certain conditions, its basic direction is to pave the way for weapons exports.

The new rule is apparently aimed at helping Japanese defense contractors beef up their business foundation through exports and joint production with overseas partners.

The new rule sets categories for countries to which the Japanese government will not allow arms exports. For example, weapons will not be exported to countries that have violated duties imposed by U.N. Security Council resolutions, and countries that have launched military attacks and become the target of UNSC sanctions aimed at maintaining or restoring international peace and stability.

But while the rule will prohibit Japan from exporting weapons to countries such as North Korea and Iran, which have been accused of violating UNSC resolutions and face arms embargoes, it could theoretically allow Japanese firms to ship arms to Israel and some Mideast countries that are in a state of military tension with their neighbors or nonstate armed groups. Israel is already a party to the international parts-sharing scheme for the F-35 production.

The new rule lists conditions under which exports of weapons will be permitted. They include: (1) when weapons exports helps enhance Japan’s contributions to peace and international cooperation; and (2) when arms exports contribute to Japan’s national security in terms of joint weapons development and production with the U.S. and Japan’s other security partners, overall security cooperation with these countries, maintenance of equipment for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, and the safety of Japanese abroad.

The conditions listed are so vague and wide in scope that they could easily lead to an expansion in the export of Japanese weapons without restraint.

The third point of the new rule says that, in principle, countries that import Japanese weapons must get Japan’s prior consent if they transfer the arms to third-party countries or use them for purposes not originally specified. But again exceptions are spelled out, such as allowing weapons produced in Japan under license from a firm in another country to be exported to that country — on the condition that the nation maintains a reliable system of controlling weapons transfers.

Under the new rule, the defense, foreign and trade ministries will normally screen cases of weapons exports. On important cases that require extra caution, the National Security Council will be called up to decide whether to allow the exports. Accountability is minimal — an annual report will be released once a year to the public on what items have been given export permits. It’s not clear how much detail will be in the report to ensure transparency of the screening process.

Under the new rule, the government says that Japan wants to proactively contribute to peace, stability and prosperity of the international community. But Abe and members of his Cabinet must seriously consider whether the new policy will really contribute to enhancing international peace. They must pay attention to the risk that weapons exports could expose Japan to international conflicts or increase tension with other countries, thereby reducing the nation’s security.

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