TOKYO — Japan on Tuesday announced a decision to ease its decades-long weapons export ban in a bid to lower purchase and production costs and take part in arms-development projects with other countries.
For a nation with a war-renouncing constitution written after World War II, lifting the ban is a sensitive issue, especially in Asia, where neighboring countries suffered under Japan's wartime aggression.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said Japan maintains its pacifist principles prohibiting export of Japanese-made weapons for use in global conflicts.
He said that the new rules, approved by the government's security council, will allow Japan to participate in arms-building projects with other countries. Exports will be limited to projects related to peacekeeping and Japan's partners cannot sell technology or weapons to a third country without Tokyo's consent.
Japan already has eased the ban in projects with the United States, its biggest ally. The latest change extends the exception to other defense partners, including European nations and Australia.
Japan and the U.S. have jointly conducted weapons research and development to step up their security alliance, but that's not enough as Japan is expected to play a greater role in international peacekeeping, humanitarian support and take steps against piracy and terrorism, Fujimura said. The easing of the ban also allows Japanese defense contractors to get access to cutting-edge weapons technology and lower costs and acquire more competitiveness, he said.
"As the international society experiences major changes, we strengthen the alliance with the U.S. but we need to cooperate with other defense partners as well," Fujimura said in a statement. "We should acquire the most advanced defense technology to upgrade the capability of Japanese defense industry and cut production costs by pursuing international joint development and production of defense equipment."
The arms export ban dates back to 1967. But the government has long been under pressure from Japanese defense contractors who said the strict policy would hamper their competitiveness and access to technology. Officials have gradually modified rules over time, and Japan has allowed supplying of weapons technology to the U.S. and joint development of missile shields between the two allies.
The U.S. military has also urged flexibility as strict use of Japan's policy would prevent Washington from selling weapons using Japan-made components to other countries.
Huge defense procurement cost is a big concern. Japan earlier this month announced a costly deal by ordering 42 F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin Corp. The Defense Ministry is requesting a budget 55.1 billion yen ($706.9 million) just for the first four of them next fiscal year, which starts in April.
Development and export of weapons parts by Japanese contractors would help to hold down costs.
Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa said Japan will stick to its principles even though the new rules could address cost and technology issues.
"The idea is to create a new framework while we firmly keep the philosophy in place," Ichikawa told reporters Saturday before the official announcement.