Japan wants to expand arms deals with Southeast Asia as China exports ‘low cost’ weapons

Shinzo Abe’s government wants to make arms sales and military technology collaboration a new plank of Japanese diplomacy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 6:24pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 10:06pm

A defence 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 defence equipment, especially in Southeast Asia, where China has expanded its own arms sales.

Hideaki Watanabe, head of the Defence Ministry’s Acquisition Technology and Logistics Agency, said Japan will host a meeting Thursday with defence 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 defence 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 international society. Japan’s research and development of high-quality defence equipment contributes to the defence of Japan and elsewhere.”

Japan’s defence industry at home is worth about 1.8 trillion yen (US$16 billion) annually, a fraction of the country’s 52 trillion yen (US$470 billion) auto industry.

Japan had restricted arms exports under its war-renouncing constitution, limiting joint research and development to the US under a bilateral security pact. Since an easing of the rules in 2014, Japan now has joint research deals with Britain, Australia and France.

In order to scale up the defence industry, Japan’s government has bolstered research funding to more than 10 billion yen (US$90 million) this year.

The only thing that really matters in Southeast Asia is cost and China will offer at low cost
Paul Burton

Japan has been promoting the transfer of defence 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 only thing that really matters in Southeast Asia is cost and China will offer at low cost,” said Paul Burton, director of aerospace, defence and security at IHS Markit in Singapore.

“They will quite happily give away the family jewels in terms of enabling indigenous production, training the local workforce and offset into other sectors.”

The three-day Maritime Air Systems and Technologies Asia (MAST) exhibition, sponsored by the Japanese defence, foreign and industry ministries, included panel discussions focused on missile defence. North Korea has conducted several missile tests this year.

In their first outing at MAST Asia in 2015 Japanese firms were still reluctant to advertise their defence work to a public wary of any return to militarism. Only NEC Corp exhibited alone, with other firms clustering together in a single display.

That hesitation seems to have eased. At least 16 Japanese firms are exhibiting alone, from leading arms maker Mitsubishi Heavy Industries , to the maker of the sub-hunting P-1 patrol jet, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, and ShinMaywa Industries, which builds the US-2 amphibious plane.

“We intend to showcase our wide range of products and technologies to event participants,” said a spokesman for Mitsubishi Heavy.

While Japan’s defence role is still a sensitive issue for other Asian countries that still have bitter memories of Japanese wartime aggression, a greater contribution by the country is welcome as the region now faces common challenges such as North Korea, said South Korean defence expert Yoon Sukjoon, a retired navy captain who was at the exhibit.

“We have a threat, a real threat from North Korea,” Yoon said, citing the North’s recent missile capabilities and nuclear development.

“Japan is our neighbour. As long as we have common interests, common security concepts, there is no specific reason why we should reject military cooperation in terms of military equipment and sharing of the information of that.”

Associated Press, Reuters