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Japan mulls restrictions on China-made drones

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NATIONAL SECURITY CONCERNS: New policies would include stricter vetting procedures of firms that supply drones to public agencies, government officials said

  • Reuters, TOKYO

Japan might shut off China from supplying drones to its government agencies to protect sensitive information, six people in the Japanese government and the ruling party familiar with the matter said, adding that the move would be part of a broad effort to bolster national security.

They said that the primary concerns were centered on information technology, supply chains, cyber security and intellectual property — worries that have been rising outside Japan as well.

However, Japan must balance such fears — particularly Beijing’s growing push to export sensitive technologies such as commercial drones and security cameras — against deep economic dependence on China.

Photo: Reuters

It must also navigate increasingly choppy waters between China and Japan’s closest ally, the US, which is at odds with Beijing over many things, including technology.

“China is a big market, and it is important for Japan,” one of the senior government officials said. “On the other hand, there are worries that advanced technologies and information could leak to China and could be diverted for military use.”

The Japanese Ministry of Defense has several hundred drones, including some made by Chinese companies; the Japanese coast guard has about 30, and most are China-made. Both agenies said that they were not using those drones for security-related issues.

Other Japanese government entities also maintain China-made drones.

It is unclear whether all would need to be replaced, but new drones, used for sensitive work, such as criminal investigation, infrastructure work and emergency rescues, would have to be secured against data leaks and go through stricter vetting procedures, the offical said.

The tightened rules, set to come into effect in April next year, do not mention any country by name, they added. However, the sources said that the policy was created with China in mind.

The initiative also includes investment rules for foreign entities enacted last year, and ruling party lawmakers are preparing a proposal on an all-encompassing law to promote economic security that would be unveiled later this year.

Separately, the Japanese National Security Council in April set up a unit to examine how economic matters, such as advanced technologies, could affect national security.

Domestic drone makers expect to benefit from the changes, as ministry level agencies would most likely do their drone shopping at home.

Aviation equipment manufacturer Tokyo Aircraft Instrument Co has developed a camera drone that can fly in high winds — making it ideal for surveying damage after a disaster — and the company is talking potential applications with the Japanese government.

“The drone platform, flight-control system and radio communication equipment are all domestic-made, and it is our unique model based on our years of experience in avionics components,” Kazuya Sumida of the company’s drone division said. “We plan to further enhance the security of the drone’s information and communications functions.”

However, government purchases make up a small part of the nation’s drone market, which stood at ¥140.9 billion (US$1.35 billion) in the fiscal year to March, up 51 percent from the previous year, Impress Research data showed.

The market is expected to grow to ¥642.7 billion in the fiscal year to March 2026.

The aim is not to boost local drone makers, the measure’s backers said — it is to keep Japan secure.

“Japan will keep diplomatic ties with China, but we will more carefully respond to sensitive technologies and information,” another senior government official said.

Analysts say that the US cannot fully cut off China because it would hurt the US economy.

“I think allied nations will discuss critical technologies, especially information and technologies which could give military advantage to China,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

Japan has already set aside about ¥300 billion to diversify its supply chains and reduce reliance on China by bringing production home or expanding production in Southeast Asia.

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