MAKUHARI, JAPAN - A Japanese defense official said Monday that Japan is seeking to increase its sales of military equipment to Southeast Asian nations amid growing tensions with China and North Korea.
The move is part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to bolster Japan's military role and its sales of defense equipment, especially in Southeast Asia, where China has expanded its own arms sales.
Hideaki Watanabe, head of the Defense Ministry's Acquisition Technology and Logistics Agency, said Japan will host a meeting Thursday with defense officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to discuss the sharing of equipment and technology.
He spoke Monday at an international arms exhibit near Tokyo that was attended by hundreds of defense officials and industry leaders from around the world.
Watanabe said there have been aggressive attempts by nations in recent years to change the status quo, in an apparent reference to China's building of artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
“It is essential to maintain the open and stable sea under the rule of law,” he said. “Ensuring safety of navigation and flight contributes to the peace and prosperity of Japan and the international society. Japan's research and development of high-quality defense equipment contributes to the defense of Japan and elsewhere.”
Japan's defense industry at home is worth about 1.8 trillion yen ($16 billion) annually, a fraction of the country's 52 trillion yen ($470 billion) auto industry.
Japan had restricted arms exports under its postwar war-renouncing constitution, limiting joint research and development to the U.S. under a bilateral security pact. Since the 2014 easing of the rules, Japan now has joint research deals with Britain, Australia and France.
In order to scale up the defense industry, Japan's government has bolstered research funding to more than 10 billion yen ($90 million) this year.
Japan has been promoting the transfer of defense equipment to Southeast Asian countries to help their maritime security capabilities amid China's growing presence in the South China Sea, but deals have been limited to the sale of TC-90 surveillance aircraft to the Philippines.
China already exports mostly low-cost military equipment to many Southeast Asian countries.
The arms exhibit included panel discussions focused on missile defense. North Korea has conducted several missile tests this year.