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A soldier from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force carries an 84mm Carl Gustav rocket launcher during Exercise Iron Fist 2014, a joint-exercise with US Marines and sailors at Camp Pendleton on February 9, 2014. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Time to Open the Door to US-Japan Weapons Trade

Arthur Herman

Will Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new emphasis on a “collective self defense” policy for Japan be a source of friction and fear for Japan’s neighbors, as some commentators suggest? Or will it be a future source of stability in the region and, as importantly, a big step in strengthening Japan’s security cooperation with the Western NATO democracies, especially the U.S.?

Much will depend on what comes out of the revisions of the security guidelines that anchor U.S.-Japan military and strategic cooperation, due by the end of this year.

This will undoubtedly be the most important revision of the guidelines since they were first adopted in 1978. Both U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera have publicly committed to accelerating those negotiations.

The last revision was in 1997, after the end of the Cold War and before China set out to become Asia’s biggest and most aggressive military power, and before there was a nuclear armed North Korea.

Experts on both sides of the Pacific understand that the revisions will have to include changes to reflect these new realities, including important measures to accelerate cooperation between our two countries on cyber, space, and missile defense, as well as coordinating command and control between the U.S. and Japanese armed forces in the event of an incident or conflict.

Deepening ties

There is one other addition to the guidelines that will be crucial to the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance and signal Japan’s new constructive strategic role in Asia. This would be a public commitment to signing a Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty, similar to the ones the U.S. signed with Britain and, in 2007, with Australia.

Based on the 2007 model, such a treaty would let the U.S. export important defense articles to Japan without cumbersome licenses or the other written authorizations usually required for weapons trade with other countries. U.S. trade is impeded by such rules even with many members of NATO. Privileged status for defense trade with Japan would mean avoiding the bureaucratic entanglements and turf wars between the Departments of Defense, State, and Commerce that bedevil most significant overseas arms sales, and often slow the transfer of technologies when they are most needed.

In fact, an agreement of this sort already exists for export of missile defense technology to Japan. A full-fledged treaty would simply widen those provisions and make them more comprehensive. If properly implemented, it would not only boost defense-related trade for Japanese as well as U.S. companies. It would also help raise both country’s military effectiveness and enhance strategic cooperation.

On the U.S. side, commitment to a Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty sends a clear message that when friends are threatened, the country is there to help, and that it will ensure they have the best and most advanced tools to deal with challenges.

For Japan, a treaty would show the rest of Asia that Japan’s new defense posture rests on a bedrock of joint cooperation with the U.S. and other regional allies, including Australia, in everything from joint military exercises to defense trade.

This is a salient issue in light of the Japanese cabinet’s July 22 decision to ease the trade ministry’s arms export control order for Japanese companies for the first time. That decision was a clear recognition of the fact that in an era of globalizing defense trade, it is vital that friends trade with friends in order to enhance each other’s security, and to help them to deter threats that increasingly imperil more than one country at a time.

The stated aim of the trade ministry changes was “to harmonize Japan’s [export] systems with global systems,” including the one the U.S. operates under, as well as “reducing the burden on businesses.” A Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty will fulfill the same agenda, and will be a crucial anchor for future strategic cooperation in general.

Getting the security guidelines right will leave America’s strategic relationship with Japan standing strong. It will also reinforce the perception that Japan’s new defense posture will help foster a new era of peace and stability, as well as deterrence, across East Asia, rather than the opposite.

Pledging to agree to a Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty with the U.S. means that far from wanting to relive the dark past, Japan is determined to embrace a bright future as a strategic partner Asia can trust and an ally we Americans fully support, and with whom we will share the technologies that make collective security more robust and war less likely for all of us.

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