TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan has decided to allow defense contractors to make components for F-35 stealth fighters despite its ban on arms exports, strengthening security ties with the United States at a time when Tokyo faces a bitter territorial row with Beijing.
Japan in 2011 picked the radar-evading combat aircraft, made by Lockheed Martin Corp, as its next-generation fighter, and said Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd, IHI Corp and Mitsubishi Electric Corp would take part in production and maintenance.
But there have been concerns that sales of F-35 jets with Japan-made components to countries like Israel could infringe on Japan's self-imposed ban on weapons exports since one of the key pillars of the ban is not to export weapons to countries that are involved in international conflicts.
Israel is expected to acquire the jets amid tensions in the Middle East.
"In light of a major contribution Japanese companies' participation in F-35 production will make to our security ... and on the precondition that the United States implement strict control (over Japan-made components), we exempt it from the arms export ban," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Friday.
The decades-old ban has traditionally kept Japanese defense contractors from taking part in international weapons development programs, making it difficult for them to stay abreast of technological development and drive down costs.
The decision comes at a time when Japan is struggling to cope with a territorial dispute over a group of East China Sea islets with China, which is developing its own stealth fighters.
The row over the uninhabited islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, has in recent months escalated to the point where both sides have scrambled fighter jets while patrol ships shadow each other.
"Is it possible for Japan not to participate in the production of the F-35? This is a very important issue," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in parliament on Thursday.
Japan plans to buy 42 F-35s, with the first four planes due to be delivered by March 2017. A Japanese defense ministry spokesman said this week there was no change to that plan after this year's second grounding of the warplane over a crack found in a test aircraft engine.
The Pentagon said on Thursday it would resume flights of the F-35 fighter jets after no additional cracks were found during inspections of engines in the rest of the F-35 fleet or in any spare engines.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Richard Pullin)
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