THE NEW PRINCIPLES AND GUIDELINES ON ARMS EXPORTS: A SIGN OF CHANGE OR A SIGN OF CONTINUITY IN JAPAN’S SECURITY POLICY?

On 1 April 2014, the Japanese government announced the adoption of the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology and the Implementation Guidelines for the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense
Equipment and Technology, which replace the Three Principles on Arms Exports and collateral policy guidelines declared respectively in 1967 and 1978. The new Three Principles and Implementation Guidelines come at a
crucial time as Japan finds itself in a security environment that, according to Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, has become “progressively severe.”

The new Three Principles and Implementation Guidelines are crucial significations of Japan’s efforts to transform its security policy to address the contingencies of the 21st century. The original Three Principles, which prohibited arms exports to communist countries, countries subjected to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions, and countries actually or potentially involved in conflict, and the collateral policy guidelines, which declared a general ban on overseas arms exports in line with Japan’s pacifist stance, were clear byproducts of the Cold War era. Their traction and applicability have diminished in the face of nontraditional threats and evolution of interstate dynamics, and they have contributed to Japan’s period of security stasis. In contrast, the new Three Principles and Implementation Guidelines enable Japan’s freer, active involvement in the international defense industry by relaxing restrictions and expediting the screening process for overseas arms exports.

In particular, the new Three Principles indicate a shift in the criteria for the restriction of arms exports, from target countries to specific conditions. Japan can now export to any country as long as the exports do not violate concluded treaties, international agreements, and obligations under the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions and as long as export destinations are not embroiled in conflict. Meanwhile, the Implementation
Guidelines eliminate the need to release a public statement from the Chief Cabinet Secretary for every approved transaction and designate the National Security Council (NSC) – composed of the defense, foreign affairs, and trade ministries – as the primary decision-making body for the exports. They also grant the Prime Minister, Chief Cabinet Secretary, NSC members, and non-NSC members the authority to preside over immediate cases.

A mixed reception

The new Three Principles and Implementation Guidelines are anticipated to bring about appropriate adjustments and opportunities for Japan. They are expected to enable Japan to demonstrate greater commitment to their relations with other countries, specifically with the United States, through the enhancement of defense capabilities and joint technology development. Furthermore, they allow the Japanese government to work around the problem of exemptions, 21 of which were granted despite the enforcement of the general ban. The conditions that they will create are expected to jumpstart the country’s long-dormant defense industry. It is arguable that
economic considerations have played a more significant part in the decision to modify the original principles and collateral policy guidelines. The Japanese government has claimed that local defense contractors such as Mitsubishi and Kawasaki stand to benefit from the relaxed arms export regime since an expanded international presence will enable them to achieve economies of scale, develop competitive advantage, and keep abreast of industrial trends and technological advances.

Despite the Japanese government’s emphasis on their necessity and potential benefits, the new Three Principles and Implementation Guidelines are regarded with some wariness. Critics argue that the new Three Principles contradict Japan’s pacifist stance because they allow arms exportation to countries at risk of being involved in conflicts. With regard to the Implementation Guidelines, critics claim that the three-step approval system is problematic because case disclosures are dependent on government discretion. Likewise, they believe that the conditions created by the new arms export policies will in fact have the opposite effect on the local defense industry since Japan will have to open up its market to foreign competition, which would bring an influx of far superior technologies.

It is worth noting that the decision to revise the original principles and collateral policy guidelines was not a sudden one, with the Japanese government having explored the possibility for some time. The announcement of the new Three Principles and Implementation Guidelines should have thus come as no surprise; nevertheless, international reaction, similar to domestic reaction, has been widespread and mixed, with some countries regarding them as a welcome step and other countries regarding them as a potentially disruptive and inflammatory course of action.

Limits and opportunities

The implications and advantages of the new Three Principles and Imple-mentation Guidelines depend on how Japan intends to uphold and apply them and how other countries evaluate and contextualize them. While they could create new opportunities, they would be neither encompassing nor absolute – countries may or may not benefit at a given time, and they may not benefit exactly the way they would like.

A cursory observation suggests that countries with substantial defense programs stand to gain more from the new arms export policies than countries with limited resources and capacities. Australia and India can acquire from Japan advanced submarine technology and the United States can enjoin Japan to engage in projects beyond the current Navy Theater Wide Defense (NTWD) program. However, given the other important aspects of Japan’s security agenda, countries like the Philippines can still benefit from the new arms export policies. While Japan has been steadily increasing its capabilities, it has also been transforming the scope of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). With the new policies, equipment needed for SDF peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, and disaster relief operations are obtainable with fewer restrictions. Countries affected by calamity or conflict can receive greater Japanese assistance in rescue and rehabilitation efforts. Following the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the Japanese government granted the continued use of SDF materials and equipment for reconstruction activities, such as hydraulic excavators, bulldozers, and bucket loaders, even after SDF withdrawal. It is a notable case of exemption demonstrating that arms exports – “arms transfers,” as translated in official documents – are not limited to commercial transactions.

Likewise, arms transfers are linked to official development assistance (ODA). Heavily invested in regional maritime security, Japan has made maritime law enforcement an ODA priority area. It can and has been able to subsume arms exports under development aid. For instance, in 2006, the Japanese government granted an exemption enabling the Indonesian Coast Guard to receive three patrol vessels. These vessels, being combat ships, violated the arms export policies and ODA principles; however, emphasis on their use in coastal monitoring made the exportation possible. Although the occurrence of a similar case may be few and far between, arms exports as part of ODA nonetheless merits examination.

Change or more of the same?

Due to Japan’s wartime past and constitutional restriction, developments related to Japanese security affairs in-cite great, if not excessive, foreign speculation. Every development has been treated as having political underpinnings, and the new arms export policies are no exception. The reaction following the announcement of the new Three Principles and Implementation Guidelines is less about whether or not they, as amendments to the existing arms export policies, are significant and more about how significant they are to Japan’s present and future course. Arguably, the debate between the advantages and disadvantages of the new arms export policies tend to be over-shadowed by the discussion of their utility in advancing Japan’s transition into a “normal state.”

Do the new Three Principles and Implementation Guidelines signify change or continuity in Japanese security policy? Do they portend a “normal Japan”? As aforementioned, the value and impact of the new arms export policies depend on how Japan elects to implement them. Principle, however complex and exacting, may not always cor-respond with practice.

The new Three Principles and Implementation Guidelines signify change insofar as they effectively alter a decades-old regime. They represent an evolution rather than a revolution, an incremental build-up towards more pivotal developments such as enabling collective self-defense and revising the ODA charter to include military aid. How-ever, they also signify continuity in so far as they simply lift the restrictions that the Japanese government itself has been circumventing for years. Moreover, they may merely be a directed gesture towards the United States, a demonstration of Japan’s dedication to its alliance with supplementary effects.

How should the Philippines view the new arms export policies and other developments in Japanese security policy? The Philippines should be cautiously optimistic and refrain from oscillating between extreme positivity and extreme negativity. It should examine such regional contingencies and developments in the context of political equilibrium and be able to determine whether they would contribute to stability or exacerbate longstanding is-sues and tensions. Furthermore, it is in its interest as a bilateral partner to ensure that Japan continues to play a constructive role in international peace and security.

The evolution of Japanese defense and security is not a recent occurrence; it has been an ongoing reality with the strong likelihood of shifting the fabric and foundations of Japan’s relations with other countries, including its relations with the Philippines. Hence, it is essential that the Philippines recognize this reality and respond to it accordingly.


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Valerie Anne Jill I. Valero is a Senior Foreign Affairs Research Specialist with the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute.
Ms. Valero can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this publication are of the au-thors’ alone and do not reflect the official position of the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of For-eign Affairs and the Government of the Philippines