Japan to keep arms embargo on states in conflict under new rules

Japan plans to maintain its ban on arms exports to countries involved in conflicts, government sources said Thursday, in a bid to dispel concerns about a drastic overhaul of the country's policy to restrict shipment of weapons.

In crafting new principles on arms export controls, the government will also likely use the term "defense equipment" rather than "weapons," the sources said.

The envisioned new arms export control guidelines, along with a possible lift of Japan's self-imposed ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense, would mark a major shift in Japan's postwar defense policy based on the pacifist Constitution.

An initial draft of the new guidelines said Japan would prohibit the export of weapons if it "clearly undermines global peace and security," according to the sources.

The wording raised concerns among the ruling bloc that Japanese-made weapons could fall into the wrong hands as "countries involved in international conflicts," a phrase used in Japan's long-held "three principles" on arms exports, was dropped.

Tokyo adopted the "three principles" on arms exports in 1967, banning the transfer of weapons to communist states, countries subject to embargoes under U.N. resolutions, and those involved in international conflicts.

The rules became a virtual blanket ban in 1976, with some exceptions made by past governments. In 2011, Japan relaxed the rules to allow exports for humanitarian and peaceful purposes, and make it easier to participate in joint development and production of weapons.

The Japanese government is now considering keeping a ban on arms exports to countries involved in international conflicts in the new rules, which will possibly be approved by the Cabinet in March.

The government will also define countries in conflicts as those mentioned in U.N. resolutions and blamed for triggering such conflicts.

"We didn't mean to allow exports to countries involved in conflicts in the first place, but we've decided to change the wording and clarify our stance to avoid giving the wrong impression," one of the sources said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to update the rules as part of his reworking of Japan's defense policy, and the initial draft guidelines did not specify communist states as prohibited destinations.

But the New Komeito party, the junior coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, remains cautious about some of Abe's policy goals. A senior LDP lawmaker also said there were calls within the ruling bloc that the rules "should not bolster the perception that the Abe administration is veering to the right."