Japan’s latest military gamble reflects a changing security landscape

The Japanese cabinet has recently approved a proposal that allows for the export of its next-generation fighter jets, developed with the United Kingdom and Italy, to third countries. This marks a break from the past as Japan’s pacifist constitution had forbidden the export of offensive weapons.

Japan has long been looking at ways to reduce the export controls on its arms exports.

In December last year, the cabinet loosened some restrictions by revising the three principles on the export of weapons that were originally adopted in 1967 and which prohibited the transfer of arms to communist bloc countries, countries under UN arms embargoes and countries involved in or likely to be involved in international conflicts.

At the same time, it has been working towards increasing its defence budget to 2 per cent of its gross domestic product by 2027, which will potentially make it the third biggest defence spender in the world after the United States and China.

In addition, back in 2015, when Shinzo Abe was Japanese prime minister, the constitution was amended to allow Tokyo to come to the aid of troops from foreign countries even if Japan was not directly under attack.

Its latest plan is another step up from these early efforts. As part of the next-generation fighter programme, Tokyo had given up on its home-grown design, which was due to be called the F-X and, in December 2022, agreed to merge its efforts with a British-Italian programme named the Tempest. The new joint project, known as the Global Combat Air Programme, is based in the UK and is expected to give a big boost to Japan’s defence sector.

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Then Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe reviews troops of Japanese Self Defence Force (JSDF) during a military parade at Asaka training ground near Tokyo, Japan on October 14, 2018. The Abe administration was a major force behind rollbacks of Japan’s pacifist constitution. Photo: EPA-EFE

The cabinet’s recent approval could also open the doors for Japan to export military hardware to countries in Southeast Asia or in other parts of the world. Japan has an extremely strong military industrial base which has not been used much since the second world war. But it has not been totally idle either.

Japan is actively refashioning its helicopter carriers, the Izumo and the Kaga, to be able to handle the US-made F-35B fighter aircraft. The upgrading of warships into what will effectively be its first aircraft carriers since World War II is likely to provoke a backlash from neighbouring countries like China and South Korea, with which Japan has historical animosities.

Under its plan to sell fighter jets, Japan can export only to those countries with which it has defence agreements and which are not involved in conflicts. This is easier said than done, since there is always a possibility that countries to which Japan sells these advanced fighter jets may get embroiled in conflicts later.

The plan could also put more pressure on Japan to actively participate in other conflicts across the world, especially in the South China Sea.

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A Japanese coastguard Akitsushima-class patrol vessel docks in Manila, the Philippines on June 1, 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE

Such weapons exports could also lead to problems on the domestic front as Komeito, a political party within Japan’s ruling coalition, has not been very keen on Japanese arms exports.

Nonetheless, the move is an important step for Japan since it is facing a variety of potential threats in the immediate neighbourhood and beyond. Already Russia and China have been working in tandem on the military front, with joint patrols both in the sea and in the air. In addition, Japan faces threats from North Korea, which has often sent missiles flying over its territory.

Tokyo seems to be also taking a stand in case a Trump administration were to come back to power in the US. It is a given that if this happens, the US may make additional demands on Japan and other US allies to take more responsibility for their own defences, which had happened during Donald Trump’s first term in office.

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With the US now embroiled in conflicts from the Gaza war to the war between Ukraine and Russia, it seems Tokyo now realises that it may have to take care of its own security needs in the near future.

The security atmosphere around Japan is rapidly changing. It was during Abe’s tenure that Tokyo had enunciated the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative which aims to keep the sea lanes of communication open in the Indo-Pacific region. Japan is also an active participant of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), along with India, Australia and the United States.

Many things will undoubtedly change before these advanced fighter jets enter service by 2035. But what is certain is that Japan has certainly crossed a Rubicon when it comes to its arms export laws. There will be no going back from here on for Tokyo.

Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a senior research fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo. The views expressed here are personal

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