By Zhang Wenwen
It is reported that a Japanese cabinet meeting recently passed a bill on strengthening domestic defense industry, including articles on establishing a foundation to promote weapons and equipment export. This is a major step taken by the Japanese government to expand its export of weapons and equipment, with the aim of reinforcing the defense industry and realizing the long-term goal of turning Japan into a so-called "military power".
The bill is said to mainly contain two aspects. The first is to reinforce Japan's defense industry chain and preventing some small and medium-sized defense-related companies from exiting the industry due to the sluggish market and consequently disrupting the industry chain, thus affecting equipment manufacturing and homeland security. The second is to facilitate Japan's export of weapons and equipment and provide a financial subsidy for technical adjustments made to meet the needs of international buyers.
"This bill, coupled with the three security documents including the new National Security Strategy (NSS) released at the end of 2022, makes enhancing the weapon and equipment manufacturing capability an important part of substantially enhancing the country's defense capabilities and paves the way for the massive increase in military spending that may double in a few years," said Sun Wenzhu, an associate research fellow at the Department for Asia-Pacific Studies, China Institute of International Studies. Sun added that the Kishida administration has paid close attention to economic security since it came into power, making a point of fostering a resilient industry chain in all fields in case any instability in the international situation may send shock waves across the Japanese industries. The bill is a manifestation of Tokyo's economic security thought in the defense sector.
XuYongzhi, director of the Division of Japanese Security Studies at the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), said the bill is aimed to promote the so-called "Indo-Pacific order" under the disguise of boosting weapons and equipment export. Japan's new National Security Strategy vowed to develop a free and open international order in the Indo-Pacific and create a new military assistance mechanism. Seeing ASEAN as a promising market, Tokyo has signed agreements with several Southeast Asian countries on equipment transfer.
Restricted by its Pacifist Constitution, Japan's homemade weapons and equipment can only be used to equip its own self-defense forces. The country generally followed the "three principles on arms export" before 2014, which means weapon export to countries other than the US is almost completely prohibited except in extremely special cases.
"In 2014, the Abe administration officially lifted the ban on weapon export and revised the 'three principles on arms export' into the 'three principles on transfer of defense equipment and technology' to allow weapon export if, as Tokyo put it, that could contribute to peace and Japan's national security. But it cannot export weapons to conflicting countries and countries under UN embargo according to international conventions," said Xu Yongzhi.
According to Sun Wenzhu, Japan revised the "three principles on transfer of defense equipment and technology" again after the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out in February 2022, and provided body armor, helmet and other equipment to Ukraine on the grounds of jointly coping with the threats to international order. That created a bad precedent for it to keep interfering in international conflicts like that in the future. The revised National Security Strategy that came out at the end of 2022 discussed further expanding the scope of weapon export, including exporting lethal weapons like missiles and fighter jets to some countries it has signed cooperation agreements with.
Sun explained Japan's expanding export of weapons and equipment in two ways. First, it wants to intensify its presence in the field of military security in order to substantially hollow out the Pacifist Constitution and the "self-defense only" principle, and gradually evolve into a military power. Second, it wants to find its way into the international arms market, make money from exporting weapons and equipment, and therefore have more capital for its own military buildup.
However, Japan's efforts to revive its defense industry have encountered many difficulties. In Sun's opinion, the Japanese defense industry has been closed to the outside world for too long. JSDF is basically the only customer at home, and domestic competition is next to zero, which has resulted in a high manufacturing cost and low performance-price ratio. Moreover, Japanese manufacturers are not good at customization according to customers' demands, and their parts are not for universal use, which means low competitiveness in the international market.
Given the high price and limited technological level, Japan may focus on exporting more military vessels, patrol aircraft and radar to Southeast Asian countries, said Xu Yongzhi. But its ambition to revive the defense industry is anything but optimistic as the recent moves have already put all concerned parties on high alert.