SINGAPORE: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday said Tokyo would offer its “utmost support” to Southeast Asian countries, several of them locked in maritime disputes with China, in efforts to defend their seas and airspace.
Setting a scene for a clash, China said it would promote its own security theory at the Asian defence forum this weekend.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting claims to parts of it by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei in one of Asia’s most intractable disputes and a possible flashpoint.
It also has a separate maritime dispute with Japan over islands in the East Sea.
Abe, in his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue for security officials and experts from Asia, also stressed the need for countries to respect international law — often code for criticising China’s assertive military stance.
“Japan will offer its utmost support for the efforts of the countries of Asean as they work to ensure the security of the seas and the skies, and thoroughly maintain freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight,” he said.
Abe’s address, the first to the forum by a Japanese leader, coincides with his controversial push to ease restrictions of the post-war, pacifist constitution that have kept its military from fighting overseas since World War Two.
“Japan intends to play an even greater and more proactive role than it has until now in making peace in Asia and the world something more certain,” he added.
China’s delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore will be headed by Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
It will “fully elaborate on China’s security concept in Asia,” he said at a regular briefing.
Despite memories of Japan’s wartime occupation of much of Southeast Asia, several countries in the region may view the message favourably because of China’s increasing assertiveness.
Sino-Japanese ties have been chilled by the row over the East China Sea isles and the legacy of Japan’s wartime aggression. Chinese delegates were expected to argue Japan, not China, poses a threat to regional security.
Earlier this month, China parked a huge oil rig in waters, also claimed by Vietnam, and scores of ships from the two countries have been squaring off in the vicinity. On Tuesday, a Vietnamese fishing boat sank, prompting Hanoi and Beijing to trade barbs over who was to blame.
China has also angered the Philippines with reclamation work on a disputed island and building what appears to be an airstrip. While the Philippines and Hanoi criticised Beijing, other countries such as Malaysia remain wary of angering China because of deep economic ties.
“My government supports the efforts by the Philippines calling for a resolution to the dispute in the South China Sea. We likewise support Vietnam in its efforts to resolve issues through dialogue,” Abe said.
He also called for the early creation of a maritime code of conduct between Asean and China and implementation of a 2007 agreement to set up a Sino-Japanese mechanism to avoid unintended clashes between ships and planes.
Japanese and Chinese vessels and aircraft have been playing cat-and-mouse near the disputed isles in the East China Sea, raising fears of an accident that could spark a military clash.
This month, Beijing and Tokyo accused each other’s air forces of risky behaviour, with Japan saying Chinese aircraft had come within a few dozen metres of its military planes.
Abe stressed that Japan’s alliance with the US was the cornerstone of stability in the region, but added that Tokyo sought closer partnerships with Asian countries, including Australia, India and Asean.
Abe, who has made no secret of his desire to loosen the limits of Japan’s pacifist constitution on the military, also promoted his plan to reinterpret the charter’s pacifist Article 9 to enable Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defence, or militarily aiding a friendly country under attack.
“We are in an era in which it is no longer possible for any one nation to secure its peace by itself. It is precisely because Japan is a country that depends a great deal on the peace and stability of the international community that Tokyo wishes to work more proactively for world peace.”
He said Japan will provide 10 new patrol ships to the Philippines Coast Guard as part of its efforts to bolster security in Southeast Asia.
He said three such vessels have been provided to Indonesia, while authorities are planning to provide such ships to Vietnam.
He said around 250 people from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have so far received coast guard training from Japan.