Japan must further ease arms export rules, ex-defense chief says

WIB politics December 25, 2023

Japan should continue to loosen its restrictions on military exports to allow its own technology to be sold overseas, a former defense minister said...
In this photo from July 18, 2023, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida addresses a press conference during a visit to Qatar as he wraps up a Gulf tour centered on energy security and cooperation with Tokyo’s main suppliers. (Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Isabel Reynolds and Yuki Hagiwara
Bloomberg News

Japan should continue to loosen its restrictions on military exports to allow its own technology to be sold overseas, a former defense minister said as the country prepares to export missiles to the U.S. in the first transaction of its type.

Itsunori Onodera, who is spearheading the move to enable defense exports from the long-pacifist country, said he would press ahead with ruling coalition discussions on broadening the scope of allowable exports.

“It would be best for us to develop technology and have it used widely around the world, rather than just taking on the manufacturing,” Onodera said in an interview Friday.

The Japanese government announced the same day it would allow sales of weapons produced under license back to the country of origin, and would export Patriot missiles to its ally. The move could widen the pool of missile interceptors available to the U.S., giving it more flexibility on how it supports Ukraine’s air defenses.

Under the new rules allowing exports back to the countries that own the licenses, Japan could also sell 155-mm artillery shells to the U.K., if requested to do so, Onodera added. Ukraine has been burning through munitions in its fight against invading Russian forces. The 155-mm artillery shell is the standard used by NATO members, who have been sending howitzers and ammunition to Ukraine.

While the loosening of the restrictions in the short term could help the U.S. and European nations in providing arms to Ukraine, in the long term it could widen the opportunities for Japan to sell arms overseas.

Last week’s unprecedented missile deal marks a sea change for Japan as it undertakes its biggest military build-up since World War II, amid growing threats from its nuclear-armed neighbors China, North Korea and Russia.

Part of the plan is to shore up the country’s fragmented defense industry. With defense-related exports virtually forbidden since the 1960s, contractors have been unable to benefit from the advantages of scale. Meanwhile exports of relatively inexpensive weaponry from neighboring South Korea have been booming since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Japan is set to export some of its existing stocks of PAC-2 and PAC-3 interceptors to the U.S. While the number of missiles and their price tag has yet to be decided, Onodera said Japan should move quickly to build more missiles to replenish its own stocks.

“Even if we don’t need them now, we will need them at some point, so Japan needs to accelerate production,” he said.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said last month that the E.U. goal of providing Ukraine with a million rounds by March wasn’t realistic. The U.S. is also facing budget constraints on military aid for Ukraine.

Negotiations with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s junior coalition partner, the Buddhist-backed Komeito, have been long and difficult, according to Onodera.

After 23 meetings, Komeito executives remain opposed to a further rule change that would allow Japan to export a next-generation fighter jet it is developing with the U.K. and Italy, Onodera said. The standoff continues as the March deadline looms for the three main contractors, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, BAe Systems Plc and Leonardo SpA to start dividing up the work.

If no decision is reached before then, Japan’s position in those negotiations could be affected, he said.

“The prime minister has asked us to reach a conclusion by the end of February,” he said, with discussions set to resume in January. “They are part of the ruling coalition, so I believe Komeito will take the premier’s appeal seriously.”


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