The Three Principles on Arms Exports: Why Are They Up for Replacement?

Politics Science Technology

From Three Principles on Arms Exports to Three Principles on Defense Equipment Transfers

At a meeting of Japan’s National Security Council on March 11, the government approved the draft outline of a new set of rules to replace the existing Three Principles on Arms Exports. Dubbed “Three Principles on Defense Equipment Transfers,” the new restraints would (1) ban transfers (exports) of defense-related equipment that would clearly impede the maintenance of international peace and security, (2) implement careful screening and restrict the transfers that are approved, and (3) allow transfers only where there is assurance of appropriate controls to prevent the equipment from being used for unintended purposes or transferred to third countries. If the new principles are officially adopted by a cabinet decision in April, it will become possible to transfer defense-related equipment to foreign governments and to international institutions like the United Nations, provided that doing so will “contribute to peace and be helpful for the active promotion of international cooperation” and “be helpful for Japan’s national security.” This will represent a substantial relaxation of the existing Three Principles, which have effectively banned almost all arms exports.(*1)

After the draft was adopted by the NSC, the government submitted it to the Liberal Democratic Party and New Kōmeitō, the two parties of the ruling coalition. At a meeting of an LDP-Kōmeitō project team on national security the government officially presented an operational framework for the new rules: The NSC will determine whether or not to allow exports of weapons or related technologies in important cases and will publish its decisions; with regard to other cases, the government will compile and publish an annual report on export numbers and destinations. In addition, as an example of the sorts of exports that would be allowed, the government cited exports of equipment for rescue, transport, warning and surveillance, and minesweeping to countries with which Japan has a cooperative relationship in the national security field. The government indirectly indicated its intention of allowing exports to coastal countries along Japan’s sea lines of communication, but apparently in deference to the Kōmeitō, which has been wary about relaxing the existing rules, it refrained from explicit mention of these sea lines. The two parties gave their overall approval to the proposed revision.

It is apparent that great attention is being paid to the question of how to delimit and place restraints on exports of defense equipment. This is fine if it will help people both in Japan and elsewhere to understand the objectives of the new set of principles. But looking at the stories on this topic in the press, I cannot help wondering how well people understand the basic issue of why it is necessary at this point to replace the existing Three Principles on Arms Exports with a new framework.

Maintaining the Industrial Base of Japan’s Defense Power

The move to revise the Three Principles actually started a couple of years ago, when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power. In December 2011, the administration of Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko decided to allow participation in international joint development and production of defense equipment like fighter jets and to permit the transfer of defense equipment for peace-building activities (such as UN peacekeeping operations) and for humanitarian purposes as exceptions to the general ban on arms exports.(*2) The Abe administration’s move to replace the old Three Principles with a new set is a continuation of the revision process that began under Noda. Why was this process seen to be necessary?

One of the foundations for defense power is industrial power. In many countries state-owned enterprises handle defense-related production, but Japan depends entirely on the private sector for this purpose. The value of the defense industry’s output (including the development, manufacture, and maintenance of defense-related equipment, along with logistical support and assistance with repairs) for the Ministry of Defense comes to less than ¥2 trillion a year, a mere 0.8% of Japan’s total industrial production. The scale of the industry is determined by the size of the ministry’s annual budget for procurement and maintenance of defense equipment. Given the critical state of public finances, these appropriations cannot be increased substantially. But as equipment becomes more sophisticated, unit costs rise; this results in smaller numbers of items being ordered, which in turn hurts the profitability of the defense industry. Over the medium to long term, private-sector companies are likely to find it increasingly difficult to sustain their defense-related research and production operations.

If it is not going to be possible to keep up the entire foundation of defense production and of related technologies within Japan, what should be done to deal with the situation? Something like the following set of policies is probably the only practical option: (1) Identify the core areas of defense production and technology that should be kept within Japan, and concentrate on maintaining and developing them so as to sustain the country’s defense power steadily over the medium to long term. (2) Strengthen cooperation with the United States and its allies and participate in joint technological development and production activities for next-generation defense equipment so as to help expand the market for parts makers and to strengthen the business base of defense-industry companies, aiming to maintain, develop, and enhance Japan’s defense-related production and technological foundations. This was the thinking behind the move to reconsider the old Three Principles and formulate a new set of rules to replace them.

National Security and Scientific Innovation

Though not directly related to the new set of principles on defense equipment transfers, I would like to note that the Fourth Science and Technology Basic Plan  adopted by a cabinet decision in August 2011 also refers to the nurturing of the industrial base for defense power, citing “strengthening national security and key technology” as a priority for research and development, to be pursued by having the government itself take a long-range view, building up results by promoting R&D on an ongoing, broad, and long-term basis.(*3)

Here is a quote from the relevant section of the basic plan:

The government will promote R&D into technologies for ocean exploration and development aiming to develop and secure useful natural resources, technologies for space transportation and satellite development and utilization that help to ensure national security, public safety, etc., including information collection, technologies for new energies with the aim of securing independent energy sources, . . . high-performance computing technology of the world’s top level, technologies for geospatial information, and technologies concerning active and dependable information security.

These technologies are critically important both for the private sector and for national security purposes, but neither private-sector companies nor universities can be expected to develop them. Ever since the start of the current Abe administration, the government has been placing great emphasis on policies to promote scientific and technological innovation as part of its drive to revitalize the Japanese economy and boost the competitive strength of Japanese industry. This is fine. At the same time, however, we should note the need for a government commitment to investment on a major scale over the long term and on an ongoing basis in developing core technologies, such as technologies for high-efficiency aircraft engines, unmanned underwater research vehicles, development and production of oceanic energy and mineral resources, observation satellites, and radioactive waste processing (volume reduction, hazard level reduction).

Looking Forward to the Future of

Effective March 31, 2014, I am stepping down as editor in chief of On April 1, University of Tokyo Associate Professor Kawashima Shin will assume the post. As I wrote on the occasion of the launch of in 2011, our aim was to create an online journal that would play a role similar to that of the monthly Chūō Kōron, but as an online journal in Japanese, English, and other languages. Since then I have done my best to make this a twenty-first-century forum for kōron, fair and balanced debate, with the help of Miya Kazuho, a former editor in chief of Chūō Kōron. We have received support and understanding from our readers, and our site traffic has increased. I hope that readers will continue to support so that, under the lead of new Editor in Chief Kawashima, it can grow into a leading online multilingual media organ presenting information and views from Japan.

(Originally written in Japanese on March 26, 2014.)

(*1) ^ “The Three Principles on Arms Exports were created by Prime Minister Satō Eisaku in 1967. Pressured by opposition insistence on the spirit of the pacifist constitution in the House of Representatives Audit Committee, Satō crafted the Three Principles to ban the export of arms to (1) communist bloc countries, (2) countries subject to arms export embargoes under United Nations Security Council resolutions, and (3) countries involved or likely to be involved in international conflicts. In 1976, Prime Minister Miki Takeo submitted a so-called Unified View of the Government to the House of Representatives Budget Committee. This confirmed the pledge ‘not to permit the export of arms to the countries or regions restricted in the Three Principles’ and ‘to refrain from arms export to other areas not included in the Three Principles in conformity with the spirit of the Japanese Constitution and the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Act.’ The Three Principles thus became an official arms export ban.” (Exerpted from Murayama Yūzō, “A Review of the Three Principles on Arms Exports,”, February 9, 2012.)—Ed.

(*2) ^ See these articles for related information: Murayama, op. cit., and Shiraishi Takashi, “Revision of the Three Principles on Arms Exports, Assistance for Myanmar,”, May 14, 2012.—Ed.

(*3) ^ Council for Science and Technology Policy, Japan’s Science and Technology Basic Policy Report, December 24, 2010.

science national security Three Principles on Arms Exports Shraishi Takashi NSC Three Principles on Defense Equipment Transfers