Japan likely to make exception to arms export ban for F-35 parts

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Thursday the government will issue a statement on the export of Japanese-made parts for Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 fighter jet, suggesting Japan will make an exception to its ban on arms exports.

Japan plans to buy 42 of the F-35 fighters with an initial batch of four planes scheduled for delivery 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.

Japan picked the F-35 as its next mainstay fighter over rivals, reflecting Tokyo's desire to tighten U.S. ties in the face of regional uncertainties including China's rise.

The defense ministry has said Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd <7011.T>, IHI Corp <7013.T> and Mitsubishi Electric Corp <6503.T> would take part in the production and maintenance of the F-35.

Japan has previously made exceptions to its decades-old ban on arms exports but extending those to F-35 parts had raised concern about the possible violation of the country's policy of not aggravating international conflicts, because Israel is expected to acquire the jets amid tensions in the Middle East.

"Is it possible for Japan not to participate in the production of the F-35? This is a very important issue," Abe told a parliamentary panel on Thursday.

He added it was possible Israel would use the jets in an armed conflict but that he was preparing a "realistic response" and a government statement on the issue.

Japanese media have said the government was likely to say in the statement that participation in developing the F-35 would contribute to the country's national security.

Japan said in February last year it had warned the United States against price rises in the fighter jet after U.S. and Lockheed officials noted delays would increase the total cost.

(Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Linda Sieg and Dean Yates)