US seeking explosives in Japan for Ukraine artillery shells

The United States is seeking to secure supplies of TNT in Japan for 155mm artillery shells as Washington rushes weapons and ammunition to Ukraine for a counteroffensive against Russian invading forces, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

For war-renouncing Japan, any procurement would test its willingness to court controversy to help Kyiv because export rules ban Japanese companies from selling lethal items overseas, such as the howitzer shells that Ukraine fires daily at Russian units occupying its southeastern regions.

Nonetheless, the allies appear to have found a workaround to enable the TNT sale amid global shortages of munitions. “There is a way for the United States to buy explosives from Japan,” one of the people with knowledge of discussions on the matter in Japan told Reuters on the condition of anonymity, citing the issue’s sensitivity.

Export restrictions for dual-use products or equipment sold commercially are less stringent than for items with a purely military purpose, which is why the US can buy Panasonic Toughbook laptops for its military. Tokyo, which hosted US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this week, has told the US government it will allow the sale of industrial TNT because the explosive is not a military-use-only product, the other source said.

The person added that the US wants to plug a Japanese company into a TNT supply chain to deliver explosives to US army-owned munitions plants that would pack them into 155mm shell cases.

Japan’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Economy declined to say whether any Japanese company had approached it about exporting TNT.

The US State Department did not directly address questions from Reuters about whether the US planned to buy TNT in Japan. Still, it said Washington was working with allies and partners “to provide Ukraine with the support it needs” to defend itself. Japan, it added, “has demonstrated leadership in supporting Ukraine’s defence”.

Eager to help, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida wants to help Ukraine because his administration fears a Russian victory would encourage China to attack Taiwan and embroil his country in a regional war.

Last year, he warned that Ukraine might be “East Asia tomorrow”, and his administration announced Japan’s most significant military build-up since World War Two.

That retreat from the state pacifism that has dominated Japan’s foreign policy for decades has not so far extended to lethal military aid, limiting Tokyo’s offerings to Kyiv to kit such as flak jackets, helmets and food rations.

Following Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Japan during the Hiroshima G7 leaders summit last month, Kishida agreed to donate jeeps and trucks. There appears to be growing acceptance in Japan about providing military aid to Ukraine.

Japan is one of the dozens of friends and allies Washington is asking to help arm Ukraine as it wrestles with stretched military supply chains.

South Korea, which also uses 155mm shells, is among those the US has approached. A South Korean defence official told Reuters that Seoul’s stance against providing lethal aid to Kyiv had not changed.

Asked in Tokyo this week about the possibility of a shift in Japanese policy on lethal aid, Austin said at a press briefing that any change would be a matter for Japan, but “any bit of support” for Ukraine was “always welcome”.

Japan’s next move in Supplying commercial TNT to the US may only be a stop-gap measure because many lawmakers of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) want to ease or eliminate the export restrictions.

In December, when Kishida announced Japan’s five-year military build-up, he pledged to revise the export rules, opening up the possibility that Japan could supply lethal weapons not only to Ukraine but to other nations that Tokyo and Washington see as potential allies against Russia and China.

Akihisa Nagashima, a former deputy defence minister and a ranking LDP member of the parliamentary committee on national security, said the military build-up would take Japan four-fifths of the way to becoming a “normal country” unencumbered by the legacy of its World War Two defeat. “Tackling the export restrictions is the remaining 20%,” he said.

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