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Asia

Japan eyes weapons sales to Southeast Asia to counter Chinese clout

Since taking office, PM Shinzo Abe has made no secret of his ambition to bolster the defense sector. Japanese arms makers presented this week their state-of-the-art wares at the nation's only dedicated arms show.

An international arms exhibition held near Tokyo from June 12-14 gave Japanese weapons manufacturers an excellent opportunity to showcase their high-end armaments and seek export possibilities.

Military technology displayed at the show - Mast Asia 2017 - included laser radar surveillance systems, mine-hunting technology, a guided missile destroyer display and a prototype amphibious vehicle model, among other things.

Read: German firms eager to access Japan's defense market

Japanese giants like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries as well as foreign firms like US defense contractor Lockheed Martin and France's Thales made their presence felt by setting up booths at the exhibit.

The three-day event was sponsored by the Japanese defense, foreign and industry ministries. It brought together hundreds of military representatives and industry leaders from across the world, particularly from Southeast Asia.

MAST Asia 2017 (picture-alliance/dpa/K.Sasahara)

A visitor to the show looks at a miniature model of P-1 Maritime Patrol Aircraft of Kawasaki Heavy Industries

MAST Asia 2017 (picture-alliance/dpa/A.Di Ciommo)

The picture shows a model of helicopter Sikorsky, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, displayed at MAST Asia 2017

Among the attendees were defense officials from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. They are also taking part in a separate military technology seminar that is scheduled to start immediately after Mast Asia.

Hideaki Watanabe, head of the Defense Ministry's Acquisition Technology and Logistics Agency, said Japan would host a meeting Thursday with defense officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to discuss the sharing of equipment and technology.

It comes as Premier Abe is attempting to strengthen Japan's position in the Asia-Pacific region and turn the country into a supplier of military equipment.

MAST Asia 2017 (picture-alliance/dpa/A.Di Ciommo)

The event brought together hundreds of military representatives and industry leaders from across the world

Concerns about China

Japan is increasingly worried about China's growing influence and assertiveness, prompting Tokyo to seek ways to broaden and deepen its relationships with other likeminded countries in the region to counteract Chinese clout.

Many Japanese are concerned about China's actions in the South China Sea, where Beijing has effectively seized and militarized islands that are claimed by a number of nations.

In the East China Sea, Beijing and Tokyo have been at loggerheads over the tiny, uninhabited islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. They are administered by Japan but claimed also by China.

MAST Asia 2017 (picture-alliance/dpa/A.Di Ciommo)

SEAFOX Mine disposal vehicle - this fibre-optic guided, one shot mine disposal vehicle is used for semi-autonomous disposal of naval mines and other ordnance found at sea

Anxious about China's intentions and advancing capabilities, Japan has also rolled back its long-held pacifist policies such as a ban on its military fighting abroad and restrictions on weapons exports.

In an apparent reference to these disputes, Watanabe said, "it is essential to maintain the open and stable sea under the rule of law."

Read: China, Japan wary of each other over advanced missile radars

"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," he added.

"The defense export sector is an important one to the Abe administration and he sees it as a way to exploit Japan's technological knowhow and give the economy a boost," said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor in the department of politics and international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University.

China is already a major player in this area and sells armaments to many Southeast Asian countries.

MAST Asia 2017 (picture-alliance/dpa/K.Sasahara)

Visitors look at the booth of BrahMos, an India-Russia joint venture, during the exhibition

Hesitation

But it's unclear how successful Japanese defense companies will be when it comes to selling their products to other countries.

For over seven decades following World War II, they faced restrictions on exporting weapons systems. This meant they were operating solely on the Japanese market during this period, delivering warships and aircraft to none other than their own government.

Many experts believe it will take a while for Japanese arms makers to adapt to doing business with foreign customers. Japan's failed bid to sell its Soryu class of submarines to Australia last year drove home the need for a shift in the industry's attitude.

Ausstellung für maritime Sicherheitstechnologien MAST Asia 2015 in Japan (Reuters/T. Hanai)

Japan's failed bid to sell its Soryu class of submarines to Australia last year drove home the need for a shift in the industry's attitude

There is also a degree of reluctance on the part of Japanese conglomerates like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to promote the military side of their activities.

"Mitsubishi Heavy would be much happier of the Japanese public thought of it as a maker of civilian passenger jets rather than as a 'merchant of death,'" said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. "So while it's acceptable for companies in Europe and the US to be associated with 'killing machines,' Japanese firms would not like that label."

But that hesitation seems to have eased, as evidenced by the fact that at least 16 Japanese firms exhibited alone at the show, in contrast to just one company going it alone in 2015.

Additional reporting by Julian Ryall from Tokyo.

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