Until a few years ago, the idea of an international arms fair in Japan would have struck many as ludicrous. Japanese troops have not fired a weapon in war since the nation’s once-powerful military was defanged by the US occupation in 1945. Japan’s corporate sector has more or less observed a total ban on weapons exports since the 1970s. Universities shun military research.
Yet, in another sign that it is slipping its pacifist moorings, Japan this month played host to the third Maritime Systems and Technologies (Mast) conference on Asian defence. Uniformed officers rubbed shoulders with diplomats and industry leaders from some of the world’s top military contractors. Japan’s leading domestic defence contractors all had their own booths.
Three years ago, Japanese firms debuted at the Paris-based Eurosatory, one of the planet's biggest defence and security industry trade shows. Among the stalls for tanks, drones, helicopters and riot vehicles were 13 Japanese companies, including the country's largest military contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, along with Kawasaki Steel, Hitachi, Fujitsu, Toshiba and NEC.
The starting gun for these changes was sounded by Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in 2013. Abe told the United Nations that Japan will "newly bear" the flag of "proactive pacifism", an unintentionally Orwellian-sounding phrase that stands in for a potentially more controversial one: confronting rising China. A year later, Abe ended the four-decade ban on selling weapons and military hardware.
In 2015, the government challenged the sanctity of Japan’s post-war pacifism by passing legislation reinterpreting the war-renouncing constitution, written by the Americans. The purpose was to allow Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to become a more forceful partner to America. A secondary aim of these policy changes is to increase sales of military equipment abroad, especially in East Asia, where China’s footprint is expanding.
Although rhetorically Abe insists Japan’s door for dialogue with Beijing is open, he increasingly appears to favour a more aggressive approach that hews close to the American line in Asia and builds military and technical alliances to counterbalance China’s rise. “Co-operation in military equipment must be part of Japan’s proactive peace strategies,” he said.
The region around the South China Sea has become a mass of competing claims and potential flashpoints as China's reach grows. Japan has begun discussing sharing military technology and kit with the Philippines, Vietnam and other regional powers. Japan's "high-quality equipment" will contribute to the defence of the region, said Hideaki Watanabe, head of the defence ministry's Acquisition Technology and Logistics Agency.
Japan’s constitution prohibits the maintenance of land, sea or air forces, though the SDF has a larger navy than France and Britain combined, over 1,600 aircraft and four large flat-topped vessels that China calls “quasi-aircraft carriers”. The SDF itself has about 227,000 personnel. Under Abe, the government has passed a series of record defence budgets, culminating with ¥5.13 trillion for fiscal 2017.
For years, Japanese contractors such as Mitsubishi Heavy and Kawasaki Steel have made small numbers of hugely expensive submarines, tanks, fighters and other weapons for a single customer – the SDF. The price tag for a single Soryu, the world’s largest diesel submarine, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, for example, is reportedly a whopping $2 billion.
Bond with US
Allowing these firms to sell abroad will cut unit costs and allow economies of scale, says Narushige Michishita, a security specialist at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. The move will also help Japan modernise its weaponry, boost what the industry calls “interoperability” with America and other military allies and weed out uncompetitive contractors.
Pressure for change had been building for some time but it was the F35, a generation of fighter jets produced by a consortium of US allies led by contractor Lockheed Martin, that tipped the balance. America needed help in what is probably the world's most expensive military programme and Japan wanted in, but its pacifist rules restricted co-operation with the multinational consortium that builds the jet.
In theory, Japan should now have a bigger say in what gets built, and why. Its innovative skills in aircraft building, laser guidance and other technologies have long been recognised: Japanese parts make up over a third of the average Boeing 787, for example, including the wings. Earlier this month, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries unveiled the first F35 built entirely in Japan. But the aircraft was assembled from parts supplied almost entirely from elsewhere.
The fate of the F35 shows that Japan will not be a big player in the global arms industry – at least for now. For one thing, it has little experience selling in the military marketplace. "When the US sells arms to Japan or Korea, it's implicitly part of the bigger package of American military support," says Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. Decades of pacifism also means Japan's weaponry is not battle-tested – a major selling point for US and Russian military contractors, says Dujarric. Unsurprisingly, war is good for weapon makers.
Japan's disadvantage against sharper-elbowed competitors was painfully evident in its failure last year to sell Soryu submarines to Australia. France won the 50 billion Australian dollars contract, the biggest single weapons-buying deal in Australian history. The French were the more battle-hardened salesmen, but domestic politics also helped torpedo Japan's bid: Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has tried to even the balance in his country's relationships with Japan and China, Australia's biggest trading partner, and to dampen speculation that Australia might form a closer military partnership with Japan and America as a hedge against China's rise.
Had Japan won, it would have been the country's first big arms-exporting deal since Abe's policy changes. As it waits to land a big contract, it must make do with consolation prizes. The country has sold domestically built surveillance aircraft to the Philippines, and is hawking similar contracts elsewhere. Another industry hope is missile technology. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is Japan's prime contractor for the Patriot missile defence system developed by Raytheon, one of the world's largest military contractors, producing high-tech missiles, bombs and battlefield control systems. The system is designed to shoot down incoming missiles and Mitsubishi Heavy helps builds its guidance system and rocket motor.
Japan is hardly the only ostensibly pacifist country with a large defence industry. Peace-loving Sweden is one of the world's largest weapons exporters per capita. Sweden's anti-tank missiles and other items have ended up in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other countries with spotty human rights records, critics say. Like Japan, Germany has kept its troops at home since the end of the second World War but sells more weapons than any other country besides the United States and Russia, according to the Economist.
Unlike those European nations, however, Japan is in a region with some of the world's fastest-growing military budgets. Military expenditure in Asia and Oceania rose by 4.6 per cent last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank, far higher than the 0.4 per cent in real terms recorded worldwide. Even if war doesn't break out, few analysts see that spending levelling off any time soon. After years of staying low-key on defence, Japan is tooling up.