I visited ShinMaywa Industries, on the outskirts of Tokyo, today and met with Yasuo Kawanishi, who is involved in business development. I also met with Eiichi Negishi, who is seconded to the Japan Aircraft Development Corporation, and is helping with commercialisation of the ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft.
The US-2 is a search and rescue (SAR) aircraft in service with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force.
Because it is a niche product, ShinMaywa has only delivered four US-2s to the Maritime Self-Defence Force and has just one more on order, for delivery in 2012.
Clearly ShinMaywa needs to find other customers to justify the investment it has made in this aircraft.
Japanese companies are forbidden from exporting military equipment, except to the USA, so ShinMaywa has developed a concept for a civil variant, namely the US-2 fire-fighting amphibian. As the name suggests, this is a fire-fighting aircraft that can land and take-off from rough seas with waves of up to around 3m.
On paper the US-2 stacks up pretty well against other fire-fighting amphibious aircraft.
ShinMaywa's product spec sheet says the US-2 can carry 15t of water whereas the Beriev Be-200 and the Bombardier 415 can carry only 12t and 6t of water respectively.
The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency tells me that they have difficulty landing their 415 in seas with more than one metre high waves. The US-2, meanwhile, can handle 3m high waves.
So the Japanese have a product that appears to be the best on paper and we know they can build it because they are already building the SAR version.
Meanwhile, China's AVIC General Aviation Company is trying to develop a fire-fighting amphibious aircraft called the Dragon 600.
I know that relations between China and Japan are strained and there is a lot of rivalry between the two. But if we put aside emotions and look at it rationally, it makes no sense for China and Japan to compete on their own in such a niche market.
It would make more sense for the two to co-operate and work together on this. One of ShinMaywa's problems is the high cost of manufacturing in Japan. If some of the manufacturing was done in China it would allow the US-2 amphibious aircraft to compete better on price.
Some would argue that having manufacturing of US-2 parts done in China would be giving the Chinese defence technology. I don't buy this argument. We're not talking about attack aircraft here. The US-2 is a four-engined turboprop SAR aircraft which is made almost entirely from metal with almost no composite materials.
If some of the systems on board have dual civil and military use then Japan, with regards to the civil variant, can always substitute these with other systems.
It is also worth adding that when Italy and France came to the realisation a few decades ago that they were developing very similar turboprop aircraft, they responded by teaming up rather than competing. The company they created was ATR, a 50-50 joint-venture between EADS and Italy's Alenia Aeronautica.