CHIBA, Japan (AP) -- A defense 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 defense equipment, especially in Southeast Asia, where China has expanded its own arms sales.
Hideaki Watanabe, head of the Defense Ministry's Acquisition Technology and Logistics Agency, said Japan will host a meeting Thursday with defense 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 defense 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 defense equipment contributes to the defense of Japan and elsewhere."
Japan's defense industry at home is worth about 1.8 trillion yen ($16 billion) annually, a fraction of the country's 52 trillion yen ($470 billion) auto industry.
Japan had restricted arms exports under its post-World War II war-renouncing constitution, limiting joint research and development to the U.S. 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 defense industry, Japan's government has bolstered research funding to more than 10 billion yen ($90 million) this year.
Japan has been promoting the transfer of defense 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 arms exhibit, sponsored by the Japanese defense, foreign and industry ministries, included panel discussions focused on missile defense. North Korea has conducted several missile tests this year.
U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin and Japanese contractors Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries were among dozens of exhibitors from around the world who had booths at this year's Mast Asia exhibit, just east of Tokyo.
Japanese manufacturers are still cautious about the prospects of military sales.
Mitsubishi Industries, a maker of Aegis destroyers and fighter jets, is not expecting booming business right away, as Japan's defense equipment sales are more focused on disaster prevention and international peace.
"We want visitors to see our comprehensive and advanced technology first," he said. "We are happy to provide our technology and equipment wherever they can be used for international peace."
While Japan's defense 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 defense 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 neighbor. 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."