TOKYO (AFP) - Japan is close to signing an agreement to supply amphibious planes to India, a report said on Monday, in what would be the first sale of hardware used by the military since a weapons export ban was imposed.
During a four-day visit to Tokyo by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, starting later Monday, the two sides are set firm up plans for Delhi to purchase the US-2, a domestically-developed aircraft used by Japan's armed forces.
The sale, reported by the Nikkei business daily, would be the first of a finished product made by Japan's homegrown defence industry since rules were imposed restricting the export of weapons systems and other equipment.
It would also mark a strengthening of the alliance between Japan and India, which both see rising China as a threat to regional stability.
Experts say the aircraft must be classed as for civilian use if it is to comply with Japan's 1967 self-imposed ban on arms exports, part of the post-World War II anti-militarist drive.
The US-2, which was developed by ShinMaywa Industries and has been sold to the Japanese navy at a price tag of roughly 10 billion yen (S$125 million), has a range of 4,700 kilometres and can land in seas with waves of up to three metres.
"If the US-2 is exported to India for civilian use, that would be the first case of exports of Japanese-developed weaponry used by the defence ministry for civilian use," a trade ministry official in charge of arms sales told AFP.
ShinMaywa opened a sales office in New Delhi last year and has been promoting the plane there, a spokesman for the company said.
"We hear there is some demand from the Indian government but decline to comment further as we have yet to reach a contract," he added. The Nikkei said India is looking to acquire at least 15 of the aircraft.
Japan has sought to expand the market for its defence industry. It has previously exported technology or parts of military hardware, but has not sold any finished products.
The plane could be deemed to have a non-military - for example, search and rescue - purpose if "friend-or-foe" identification systems were disabled, officials said, making it eligible for export.
In 2011 Tokyo eased the decades-old ban on arms exports, paving the way for Japanese firms to take part in multinational weapons projects.
The reported talks on sales "are based on policy decisions made a few years ago that Japan has to support its defence industry by diverting military technology to civilian use for export", said Takehiko Yamamoto, professor of international relations at Waseda University.
Otherwise, major Japanese firms such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries "will not able to maintain their pool of engineers to develop military technology that is essential for the defence of Japan", he said.
Boosting exports from Japan's manufacturing behemoths is a key part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's plan to revive the economy.
Mr Abe and Dr Singh are scheduled to meet on Wednesday for a summit expected to concentrate on trade and investment.