August 26, 2014

The armaments export policies of Germany and Japan seem to be crossing paths this month. His recent approval of the export of a whole tank factory to Algeria notwithstanding, German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel is said to have been piling up license requests on his desk, content to do nothing, save to tell German arms makers to find other work. At the same time, Japanese Prime Minister Abe has declared, at least in principal, the entire Japanese arms industry open for business globally. This could produce submarines for Australia, and even a new fighter jet.

Japanese companies will be newcomers to the international markets, but it would be foolish to dismiss their engineering and marketing skills. American automotive manufacturers did that for decades, despite all the evidence of how unwise that would be. Today, Japanese firms have top-notch capabilities in designing and building not just trucks, but ships and aircraft too. If they have a weakness, it’s high labor costs, driven by all that success. And there are already signs that they’re eager to export: Japanese firms are showing up at the usual trade shows, and hiring advisors in Washington DC.

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that arms-trading relationships are based on government-to-government trust, and are built over time. German firms have indeed helped Bonn and Berlin build those, but apart from Chancellor Merkel’s dallying with exporting to Saudi Arabia, German governments have been more reticent than many about whom they would sell to. In the process, Germany has developed a reputation as a solid but judicious partner. Japanese firms don’t have those relationships, and they’re not likely to get them quickly in much of Asia. That’s an unfortunate and unreasonable consequence of history, but it remains what it is.

Increasingly aggressive neighbors to the west of Japan and the east of Germany might provide congruent motivations for the respective national governments to build the capabilities of their defense industries through supportive export policies. Yet for whatever reason, the directions of the two are at odds. Indeed, with all that brand equity built up by German industry over time, just what Siggi Pop is trying to accomplish is not entirely clear. If there is any lesson to be learned here, it is that arms trading franchises require considerable consistency in governmental policy across time. Japan may need to wait some years for results, but unfortunately, Germany’s may come faster.

James Hasik is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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