TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan and Britain hope to reach a deal to begin joint development of arms following Tokyo's easing of its ban on exports of military equipment late last year, Britain's Ministry of Defence said on Wednesday.
It would mark the first time that Japan has worked with a country other than the United States on military equipment after making an exception for the U.S. missile defence program.
Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his British counterpart David Cameron are expected to formally agree to begin talks when they meet on April 10 in Tokyo, Japan's Mainichi daily reported on Wednesday.
A spokesman for Britain's Ministry of Defence confirmed that "discussions are occurring", but said it was too early to say an agreement had been reached.
"The UK will continue to work with the Japanese ministry of defence to identify the best opportunities for our defence industries to cooperate on equipment projects following the announcement of changes to the Japanese policy on overseas transfer of defence equipment," the UK defence ministry said in a statement released in response to the Mainichi report.
The newspaper quoted an unidentified senior defence ministry official as saying that it could take the two countries about a year to decide on specific items for joint development as even with the relaxation of rules, Japan still imposes restrictions on sales to third parties.
The two countries may gradually start joint development with small military equipment, rather than big machines like fighters, it said, quoting an unidentified senior foreign ministry official.
Japan in December decided to relax its self-imposed decades-old ban to allow it to take part in the joint development and production of arms with other countries and to supply military equipment for humanitarian missions, opening new markets to its defence contractors.
Other countries such as Australia and France have also expressed interest in working with Japan on military equipment but Japan has prioritized its agreement with Britain after it chose Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 fighter jets over the Eurofighter Typhoon, made by a consortium of European companies including BAE Systems.
(Reporting by Rie Ishiguro. Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas in London.; Editing by Edwina Gibbs, Ron Askew.)