TOKYO • Japan is interested in joining a Nato missile-building consortium that would give Tokyo its first taste of a multinational defence project, a move the US Navy is encouraging because it could pave the way for Japan to lead similar partnerships in Asia, sources said.
The 12-country Nato consortium oversees development and shares the costs of the SeaSparrow missile, an advanced ship-borne weapon designed to destroy anti-ship sea- skimming missiles and attack aircraft. The missile is made by United States weapons firms Raytheon and General Dynamics.
In May, Japanese naval officers travelled to a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation meeting in The Hague to learn more about the consortium, Japan's navy and a US source familiar with the trip told Reuters.
Two Japanese sources familiar with the initiative said discussions in Tokyo were at an early stage, although joining the consortium would dovetail with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's more muscular security agenda, which included the lifting last year of a decades-old ban on arms exports.
The consortium is set to develop an upgraded version of the SeaSparrow in the coming years. Having Japan on board would spread the costs, but Washington also sees a role for Japan in leading multinational military industrial partnerships in Asia at a time when China's military modernisation and assertiveness are alarming many nations in the region, said the US source.
Such partnerships, which are rare in Asia, would create a network of security ties beyond formal military alliances that mostly involve Washington and its regional allies.
Since lifting those curbs, Mr Abe has begun boosting security cooperation across South-east Asia, where several countries with tight budgets are worried over China's creation of man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea.
Last month, Mr Abe agreed with Philippine President Benigno Aquino on an exchange of military technology and hardware. Mr Abe in May also agreed to start talks on transfers of defence equipment and technology with Malaysia. And Australia is considering Japan as the possible builder of its next-generation submarines, something US naval commanders have publicly encouraged because doing so would deepen ties between two of Washington's closest allies in Asia.
None of these initiatives, however, is multinational.
Japan's navy already uses the SeaSparrow missile, which is assembled locally by Mitsubishi Electric under a co-production agreement with Nato and the US manufacturers. That would make the transition to a full consortium partner easier, said the US source.
"Japan recognises that it should join these international groups to help amortise purchases and make their industry more competitive," said a US executive who works closely with the Japanese government and industry. "You're going to see them engaged in more and more bilateral, trilateral and multilateral groups in coming years."