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Historic defense shift: Why pacifist Japan plans to sell fighter jets now

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Japan’s cabinet has endorsed a groundbreaking move to sell future next-generation fighter jets developed in collaboration with Britain and Italy to other nations. This decision signifies a notable shift from Japan’s post-World War II pacifist stance, stirring both domestic and international debate. As part of Japan’s broader strategy to enhance its arms industry and assume a more significant role in global security, this development has stirred a mix of anticipation and concern.
Here, we delve into about this pivotal change in Japan’s defense export policies and its implications.

  • What led to Japan’s decision to allow international arms sales?
  • Japan’s Cabinet has given the nod to a new policy allowing the sale of next-generation fighter jets, currently under development with Britain and Italy, to other countries. Chief cabinet secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi said, “In order to achieve a fighter aircraft that meets the necessary performance and to avoid jeopardizing the defense of Japan, it is necessary to transfer finished products from Japan to countries other than partner countries.”
  • What is the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP)?
  • The Global Combat Air Program, or GCAP, is a collaborative initiative between Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy aimed at developing an advanced fighter jet to replace aging fleets. Originally, Japan was working on a domestic design known as the F-X, which later merged with the British-Italian Tempest program in December 2022. This joint effort seeks to develop a jet with enhanced sensing and stealth capabilities to address rising regional tensions, notably with China and Russia.
  • How does this change affect Japan’s pacifist constitution?
  • Japan has maintained a pacifist constitution since World War II, limiting its military actions and equipment transfers strictly to self-defense. However, the recent decision marks a significant pivot from this stance by allowing the export of co-produced lethal weapons for the first time. Critics argue this move contradicts Japan’s pacifist principles, while supporters claim it’s a necessary response to current security challenges.
  • What are the implications of selling next-generation fighter jets internationally?
  • By entering the global arms market, Japan aims to distribute the development and manufacturing costs of the new fighter jet, thereby making the project financially viable. “We need to have a system in place that would allow us to transfer defense equipment to countries other than our partners, and to make contributions on par with the UK and Italy,” said Yoshimasa Hayashi.
  • Who are the potential buyers of the Japanese-developed fighter jets?
  • Potential buyers for the jet include the 15 countries with which Japan has signed defense partnership agreements, such as the United States, Germany, India, and Vietnam. However, sales will be restricted to nations not involved in active conflicts and that adhere to UN charters.
  • How does the public in Japan view this major policy shift?
  • Recent polls indicate that public opinion in Japan is divided regarding the plan to export fighter jets. Opposition lawmakers and pacifist activists have criticized the government for not thoroughly explaining or seeking public approval for this significant change.
  • What future steps are anticipated following this policy revision?
  • As Japan plans its state visit to Washington in April, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to discuss new defense and weapons industry cooperation with US leaders. This move could further solidify Japan’s position in international military and defense partnerships, particularly amid the challenges posed by China’s military expansion and regional tensions.
  • (With inputs from agencies)

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