Editorial: Change to arms embargo could shake philosophical base of “pacifist nation”

This is an issue that could shake Japan’s philosophical base as a “pacifist nation.”

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is drawing up new guidelines for arms exports. This will be a significant change in our nation’s arms embargo and will result in abandoning our Three Principles on Arms Export, an important policy which has clearly expressed Japan’s stance since it was established in 1967. The government is hastily seeking to obtain cabinet approval this month.

Judging from available information on the new guidelines, they seem to be based on a completely different concept. Instead of a general embargo, with exceptions, they approve of arms exports on the whole, with only certain items banned.

The government says it will give careful consideration to each item to determine whether or not it will be permitted for export. The new guidelines will be similar to the current policy in that they will essentially forbid exports to countries to which weapons exports are banned by United Nations’ resolutions, such as North Korea.

A grave concern, though, is the possibility that Japan will be able to export arms to parties engaged in conflict, which Japan has expressly forbidden for many years.

Under the current three principles, debate has been held on the rights and wrongs of providing Israel with F-35 fighters, an aircraft which Japan is involved in developing. The change in guidelines would make it possible for Japan to more easily export such weapons to nations overseas.

For instance, in situations like the civil war in Syria, it is conceivable that weapons produced in Japan, like combat vehicles or firearms, could reach the side of the Syrian government and be used to crack down on the opposition. It would mean that Japan could become indirectly involved in the conflict.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said in a speech that Japan will not become a “merchant of death.” But once the current limits are removed, it will be possible for each new administration to stretch its interpretation of the rules.

Of course, it cannot be said that past administrations have adhered strictly to the three principles. Exceptions to the rules have been made, one by one, such as providing technology to the United States. The administration of the Democratic Party of Japan permitted defense-related equipment to be provided for humanitarian purposes, and heavy equipment used by the Japan Self-Defense Forces in their U.N. peacekeeping operations was left behind in Haiti. Under the Abe administration, rifle ammunition was provided to South Korean troops engaged in peacekeeping operations in South Sudan.

It is clear that the business community, particularly the defense industry, is seeking to accelerate the current course. Their logic is: The joint development and production of weapons helps cut costs, is now a global trend, and can lead to nurturing homegrown technology.

Nevertheless, many citizens have a deep sense of unease when it comes to the idea of discarding the three principles at one stroke. A Kyodo News survey conducted late last month indicated that 67 percent of the respondents were against abandoning these principles.

Regulating the arms trade, from a humanitarian perspective, is now an international trend. Following bans on land mines and biological and chemical weapons, the United Nations adopted the Arms Trade Treaty last year, a pact which regulates trade in conventional arms. That the Japanese government is seeking ratification of this treaty, while reviewing its own policy on arms exports, is more than perplexing.

This issue is among a series of changes sought by the Abe administration in the nation’s security policy. There is a sense that the government is attempting to do whatever it pleases while the economy is strong and its approval rating is high. Along with altering the interpretation of the Constitution with respect to the right to collective self-defense, about which the New Komeito party is expressing reservations, revision of the three principles is a weighty matter which demands exhaustive discussion. The government’s attempt to hastily obtain cabinet approval is completely unacceptable.

(Originally published on March 6, 2014)