Japan is seeking to diversify and expand security partnerships as it faces dual threats posed by an expansionist China and an unpredictable North Korea. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.
Japan and Germany have signed an agreement on the joint development of new defense technology, the eighth such bilateral pact that Tokyo has signed with foreign nations since the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe revised legal restrictions on the sharing of advanced defense knowhow.
The earliest agreements were signed with the United States and Britain, with subsequent deals also linking Japan's defense sector with France and the Netherlands.
Tokyo's drive to forge closer links with European nations, in particular, coincides with increased defense spending at home. In late December, the government approved a record defense budget of Y5.13 trillion (37.6 billion euros, $43.6 billion) for the 2017 fiscal year, a 1.4 percent increase in spending from the previous year.
Japan's desire for improved and more diversified working ties with other advanced nations dates back to 2010, when the Japanese government altered the nation's Basic Self-Defense Policy, which had been in place since 1957 but no longer reflected the challenges of the security situation in the Asia-Pacific region. Under the new plan, known as the Dynamic Defense Policy, the focus switched to a more proactive ability to defend Japan's territory and to contribute to international peace and stability.
A number of recent test launches have seen North Korean missiles falling into Japan's exclusive economic zone
This was taken a step further in 2014, when the Cabinet concluded that the Constitution does grant Japan the right to exercise collective self-defense in certain circumstances that are in the interests of the nation's security.
In the same year, the government lifted the ban on Japanese defense firms from exporting products that could be classified as arms. Under the new regulations, known as the Three Principles on Defense Equipment and Technology Transfer, defense equipment can be exported in support of international peace and stability.
And while Japan makes no mention of the specific threats that it faces, it is clear that the main concerns are China and North Korea.
China is sharply increasing spending on its military, has recently declared that its first aircraft carrier is operational and insists that a small chain of Japanese-held islands off Okinawa are historically Chinese territory. Tokyo disputes that claim and has shifted its defense posture away from land-based capabilities to a more air-sea focus in its far south-western reaches.
North Korea, meanwhile, remains deeply unpredictable - although it appears that the regime of Kim Jong Un has made significant strides in the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. A number of recent test launches have seen North Korean missiles falling into Japan's exclusive economic zone.
"Japan is trying to build a much broader and diverse range of multi-dimensional partnerships with numerous other countries," Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University, told DW.
Traditionally, Japan's defense partner for the last 70 years has been the US, and Tokyo has purchased the vast majority of the hardware that it was unable to develop domestically from US companies. That reliance on the US "limited" Japan's choices, Mulloy said, particularly when it comes to systems that are the most appropriate fit for Japan's specific defense concerns.
One key area that Mulloy expects Japan and European countries to cooperate on is a next-generation air-to-air missile
Development of the MBDA Meteor active radar missile is being led by the UK defense sector, although with significant input from German companies. The missile will have a range in excess of 100 km and is being fitted to Eurofighter Typhoons, including those deployed by the Royal Air Force and Germany's Luftwaffe.
"This is an extremely good weapon and it has US companies worried as they try to push their own systems," Mulloy said.
The Japanese, meanwhile, use the AAM-4 air-to-air missile, which has arguably the best target-seeking technology in the world. Its drawback is that it is large and therefore not able to fit inside the interior weapons bays of the latest generation of stealth fighters.
China insists that a small chain of Japanese-held islands off Okinawa are historically Chinese territory
If the relative advantages of the Meteor and the AAM-4 can be combined, Mulloy believes the weapon will be a world-beater.
"There are other systems that Japan is intent on jointly developing, such as body armor that uses ceramics and add-on armor for vehicles, where Germany has a good deal of operational experience," Mulloy said.
"And Germany is seen as a good potential partner because it is seen as being dependable in business at the same time as being technologically capable."
Japan is also looking to diversify its defense technology partners after the planned joint development of a fighter aircraft known as the FSX with the US went sour in the late 1980s, believes Go Ito, a professor of political science at Tokyo's Meiji University.
"There was something of a confrontation between the two nations because some of the technology that was to be used in the aircraft was originally developed in Japan but the US had obtained the intellectual property rights. So that is a bad memory for Japanese firms over military technology exports and a reason why Tokyo is looking to cooperate more closely with European firms," he told DW. "Japan is hedging its risks."
Japan is hoping to market its advanced technology in the areas of radar and communications tools, while it also very much hopes to acquire or jointly develop smaller weapons systems, warships and noise-suppression technology, such as the systems used in submarines and which European firms excel at.