Tokyo’s decision to ease its arms export restrictions is a welcome, if overdue, move, and an important part of Japan’s shift to an increasingly normal military posture.
For years, Japan has edged toward loosening its post-World War II arms export ban. Surplus ships and other gear have been exported, for example, but only on an exceptional basis. The restrictions have complicated Japan’s ability to work on complex international defense programs. Waivers were needed, for example, to allow Tokyo to partner on the US Theater High Altitude Area Defense System.
With the restrictions eased, Japanese industry will be able to participate more easily in such weapons programs. The moves bring Japan closer to the United States, enable it to quickly support allies and establishes a rules-based system to govern cooperation and sales with the final approval authority resting with the National Security Council.
But hurdles remain. Realistic and effective protection of classified information and third-party transfer protocols need to be established. Both issues factor into bilateral Japan-US defense programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Standard SM-3 Block IIA missile.
Tokyo must tread carefully. A string of missteps by the government is worrying nations across the region that fear the return of Japanese militarism and revisionism regarding its wartime actions.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must ensure that the export-rules shift that allows Japan to play a legitimate role in the region’s collective security doesn’t become the latest way to alienate the regional allies it needs.