By Mohammed Abbas
TOKYO (Reuters) - Britain and Japan said on Tuesday they have agreed to jointly develop and build defense equipment, the first time since World War Two that Japan has concluded a weapons-building deal with a country other than the United States.
The announcement came at the start of a tour of Japan and southeast Asia by British Prime Minister David Cameron aimed at boosting trade ties with the region.
"We have decided to identify a range of appropriate defense equipment for joint development and production ... which contributes to both countries' security and presents industrial opportunities," said a statement from Cameron and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
Without elaborating, the leaders agreed to "seek to launch at least one programme of such defense equipment as soon as possible and explore the feasibility of a future major programme".
Japanese defense policy changed last December to allow Japanese companies to export weapons and collaborate with countries other than its main ally, the United States.
Hours before Cameron's plane touched down in Tokyo, Japanese carmaker Nissan Motor Co said it would spend $200 million to build a new hatchback at its British plant.
Cameron's two-year-old coalition government is trying to boost British manufacturing to lessen reliance on a financial services sector roiled by the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. It also seeks to limit the economy's exposure to the crisis-hit euro zone by doing more business with fast-growing Asian economies and emerging markets around the world.
British officials said, in all, more than 200 million pounds ($317.19 million) of Japanese investment in Britain had been agreed, including a Mitsubishi Corp wind turbine research project in Edinburgh and a Panasonic fuel cell research centre in Cardiff.
"This trip is really about British business, British exports and investment from Britain into these countries, and investment from these countries into Britain," Cameron told reporters.
"Nissan's investment in the UK is a huge vote of confidence in the skills and flexibility of the UK workforce. We want to attract more investment like this," he said.
Nissan's new car will go into production in 2014 and create 225 jobs at its Sunderland factory in northern England and 900 more at the carmaker's British suppliers.
The new commitment comes on top of $200 million earmarked for production of a new compact car Nissan announced last month and will take manufacturing capacity at Britain's biggest car plant beyond 550,000 vehicles a year.
Accompanied by about 35 executives from defense, energy, construction and other firms, Cameron will head from Tokyo to Indonesia on Wednesday and Malaysia the following day.
On Friday, Cameron is due in Myanmar where he will meet pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as the first major Western leader to visit the long-isolated country since a 1962 coup began a half century of military rule.
His visit, confirmed by sources in Myanmar, comes nearly two weeks after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a historic by-election by a landslide, convincing the United States and European Union to consider relaxing economic sanctions imposed years ago in response to human rights abuses.
DEFENCE, NUCLEAR ON AGENDA
In Japan, Cameron and Noda were also discussing cooperation on nuclear decommissioning and free trade, as well as the violence in Syria and relations with Iran and North Korea.
Architecture and infrastructure firms and nuclear industry executives are with Cameron, reflecting British hopes for a slice of the vast sums Japan will spend to clean up and rebuild regions devastated by last year's earthquake and tsunami.
The tsunami washed away swathes of Japan's northeastern coast and wrecked the Fukushima nuclear plant north of Tokyo, releasing radiation and forcing 80,000 people from their homes.
"British companies have significant expertise in nuclear decommissioning and clean-up, with 19 nuclear sites in the UK currently being managed through the process," Cameron said.
Progress on securing a free trade agreement between the European Union and Japan is also on the agenda.
In Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country, the British delegation will focus on deals in energy, construction, retail, pharmaceutical, defense and financial services sectors.
"There's enormous upside potential, and I think a number of businesses are very excited by the fact we're going to Indonesia," Cameron told reporters.
In Malaysia, Britain aims to tap the Southeast Asian country's position as a regional education hub, with many Western universities setting up campuses there.
The British leader also hopes to bolster moderate forces in the two Muslim democracies.
"There's the issue of encouraging moderate Islam and showing that Islam and democracy are compatible. And I think that both Indonesia and Malaysia are great examples of that," Cameron said. ($1 = 0.6305 pounds)
(This version of the story corrects the company name in paragraph 8 to Mitsubishi instead of Mitsui)
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft and Aung Hla Tun; Writing by Mohammed Abbas and Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Alison Williams)