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Japanese Prime Minister offers support to Southeast Asia on sea disputes

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-05-2014 Isabel Reynolds

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan would spare no effort in helping Southeast Asian nations secure the seas and pledged strong support for the Philippines and Vietnam in their maritime disputes with China.

“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,” Abe said in Singapore on Friday, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Abe’s speech to defence officials at the Shangri-La security forum comes at a time of rising tensions over China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Sea. Anti-Chinese protests swept Vietnam this month after China placed an oil rig in waters disputed by the two countries, while the Philippines has started arbitration proceedings in the United Nations in its standoff with China over shoals off its coast.

Abe has moved to toughen Japan’s defence posture in the face of the country’s own territorial spat with China and emerging doubts over whether the US would be willing to use its military clout to defend allies in the region. Abe has repeatedly accused China of trying to change the status quo by force and on Friday reiterated offers to Asian allies of military equipment and training.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has been tapping its economic and military muscle to assert its claims to surrounding waters that may be rich in mineral and energy deposits. China claims much of the South China Sea under its nine dash-line map, first published in 1947, which extends hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo, taking in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Oil Rig

Asean members Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also claim parts of the sea, while violence flared in recent weeks in the confrontation between China and Vietnam near the Paracel Islands.

Vietnam said China rammed and sank one of its fishing boats on 26 May near the oil rig. The standoff over the rig triggered anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam that killed at least three Chinese nationals. The sinking happened two days after Chinese fighter jets flew within tens of meters of Japanese surveillance planes in the East China Sea.

“China blamed the sinking on Vietnam and accused Japan of infringing on the no-fly zone it set up for its first bilateral naval exercises with Russia in the East China Sea.

We do not welcome dangerous encounters by fighter planes or warships at sea,” Abe said. He said it was regrettable that a bilateral communication mechanism for avoiding unforeseen incidents had failed to come into effect and urged China to return to talks on the matter.

Japan Aid

Japan will provide aid, military training and defence equipment cooperation to help Asean nations protect the seas, Abe said. Japan has already delivered coast guard vessels to Indonesia, agreed to do so for the Philippines and is in talks to provide them to Vietnam.

Japanese and Chinese coast guard vessels have tailed one another around the uninhabited East China Sea islands since Japan bought three of them from a private Japanese owner late in 2012. Bilateral ties have been rocked by the dispute over the islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, and Abe has not held a summit with China since taking office almost 18 months ago.

Abe said his plans for Japan to make a more active contribution to security have been broadly welcomed overseas. Abe increased Japan’s defence budget for two years in a row after it had slid for more than a decade. He loosened restrictions on defence exports and is seeking to reinterpret the US-imposed pacifist constitution to allow Japanese troops to defend allies and use weapons more freely.

‘Enthusiastic Support’

“I have already received clear and enthusiastic support from the leaders of the Asean nations, the US, Australia, the UK and France, all the friends and allies of Japan,” Abe said. “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.”

While the US has repeatedly said its obligation to defend Japan extends to the disputed islands, US President Barack Obama said in a speech on defence policy this week that the armed forces can’t be the primary component of our leadership.

US defence secretary Chuck Hagel said he will meet with a senior Chinese military official during the conference and caution him about escalating conflicts in the region. Abe plans to meet Hagel, while Japanese defense minister Itsunori Onodera will give a speech at the conference and hold trilateral meetings alongside the US with South Korea and Australia.

‘Not Change’

China is sending Fu Ying, a former deputy foreign minister, alongside a retinue of People’s Liberation Army officers.

Abe emphasized in his speech that Japan would remain a proponent of peace, as it has done since its World War II defeat.

“Japan has pursued a path of peace without wavering for generations,” he said. “That will not change.” Bloomberg

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