Japan is interested in joining a NATO missile building consortium that would give Tokyo its first taste of a multinational defense project, a move the U. S. Navy is encouraging because it could pave the way for Japan to lead similar partnerships in Asia, sources said. The 12-country NATO consortium oversees development and shares the costs of the SeaSparrow missile, an advanced ship-borne weapon designed to destroy anti-ship sea-skimming missiles and attack aircraft. The missile is made by U.S. weapons firms Raytheon (RTN.N) and General Dynamics (GD.N), Reuters reported. In May, Japanese naval officers traveled to a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in The Hague to learn more about the consortium, Japan's navy and a U.S. source familiar with the trip told reporters. Two Japanese sources familiar with the initiative said discussions in Tokyo were at an early stage, although joining the consortium would dovetail with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's more muscular security agenda, which included the lifting last year of a decades-old ban on arms exports. The sources declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The consortium, established in 1968 by four countries including the United States, is set to develop an upgraded version of the SeaSparrow in the coming years. Having Japan on board would spread the project's costs, but Washington also sees a role for Japan in leading multinational military industrial partnerships in Asia at a time when China's military modernization and assertiveness is alarming many countries in the region, said the U.S. source. Such partnerships, which are rare in Asia, would create a network of security ties beyond formal military alliances that mostly involve Washington and its various regional allies. "We think this project will allow Japan to lay the groundwork for further defense export programs in the future," the U.S. source said. "We would welcome this kind of security cooperation activity by Japan in the region." Asked to comment, a spokesman for the Japanese navy said in an email: "The U.S. Navy is keeping us informed about the SeaSparrow project. With the aim of improving the procurement efficiency of our ship-based surface to air missiles we are gathering information to make the necessary choice." The U.S. Navy said it was not immediately able to comment. NATO declined to comment.