Northeast AsiaPartnerships

Japan’s revised defense export policy signals expanded regional security role

Felix Kim

In a significant policy shift, Japan recently revised its defense export rules, enabling the export of complete defense equipment manufactured under foreign licenses. Analysts say the strategic move, coinciding with Tokyo’s efforts to strengthen its missile defense capabilities, is poised to reshape regional and global security dynamics.

The policy change allows Japan to export Patriot surface-to-air missiles to the United States, which will help the U.S. maintain its own arsenal as it continues to supply Ukraine with missiles for its defense against Russian forces. The U.S. Defense Department noted the move will “enhance stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” while Japanese Defense Minister Minoru Kihara underscored the significance of the weapons transfer in strengthening Japan-U.S. security cooperation and ensuring regional peace.

Japan Air Self-Defense Force personnel train with the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 surface-to-air missile defense system in 2017.

In line with Japan’s Constitution, the policy move does not allow domestically manufactured arms to be sent to warring nations.

Tokyo’s decision was influenced by its desire to support Ukraine indirectly, as well as by internal calls to ease export rules to bolster Japan’s defense industry, Dr. Jeffrey Hornung, a defense analyst with the Rand Corp., told FORUM.

The new rules are just one aspect of Japan’s evolving defense strategy, Hornung said, noting the country’s substantial investments in enhancing its missile defenses, including deploying advanced interceptor missiles and radar systems. The focus extends to bolstering the Japan Aerospace Defense Ground Environment network and addressing potential vulnerabilities in communication links and networks.

Japan-U.S. missile defense cooperation also is advancing. Hornung noted the longtime allies’ collaboration on the SM3 Block IIA surface-to-air missile and recent initiatives such as a glide interceptor to counter hypersonic threats.

In addition, he emphasized Japan’s role in regional security through its radar exports to the Philippines and improved information sharing with South Korea as crucial steps in a broader defense architecture.

U.S. Army Soldiers conduct Patriot missile defense system drills in 2017 and 2021.

At the same time, Hornung noted the need for Japan to continue addressing other defense challenges, such as boosting its munitions stockpiles and bolstering Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force recruitment.

The defense exports policy change, the first since 2014, aims to enhance Japan’s security partnerships and revitalize its domestic defense industry, according to The Nikkei, a Tokyo newspaper. Lawmakers will consider defense equipment exports on a case-by-case basis.

By giving Japan’s defense industry access to more customers, the eased export rules will help lower costs, which also will benefit the nation’s planned defense buildup, Hornung said.

The policy shift also positions Japan as a more influential player in regional and global security, he said, underscoring its commitment to the Japan-U.S. alliance and its growing role in countering regional threats, particularly in the context of rising tensions with North Korea and the People’s Republic of China.

Felix Kim is a FORUM correspondent reporting from Seoul, South Korea.

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