Japan yesterday called for stronger security ties with Southeast Asia as Tokyo looks to boost alliances at a time of growing territorial tensions with China.
Vice-minister-level representatives from Japan and 10-member ASEAN began a two-day gathering at a Tokyo hotel, with several participating nations embroiled in sovereignty rows with Beijing.
“The Asia-Pacific region has various issues concerning security and defense ... including territorial conflicts in the South China Sea,” Japanese Vice Defense Minister Akinori Eto told the opening session of the closed-door meeting.
“On top of the growing maturity of our economic cooperation, Japan and ASEAN need to further strengthen ties in the field of security and defense,” Eto said.
The meeting is the first high-ranking defense dialogue of its kind since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in late December last year following a landslide victory in elections.
“Our country changed governments late last year,” Eto said. “Under the new regime, we want to reinforce cooperation in security and defense with ASEAN countries, and contribute to peace in the region.”
Ahead of the meeting, the ASEAN participants met Abe late on Tuesday and voiced their high expectations of Japan “in dealing with various security issues of the Asia-Pacific region,” the defense ministry said in a statement.
Japan, along with several members of ASEAN, have locked horns with China over separate territorial disputes.
Relations between Beijing and Tokyo have deteriorated badly over the past year as the two sides argue about the sovereignty of the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea, also claimed by Taiwan.
On Tuesday, three Chinese government ships spent several hours in the 12 nautical mile (22.2km) territorial zone off one of the islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan.
ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as China and Taiwan, have claims to parts of the South China Sea, which contains some of the world’s most important shipping lanes and is believed to be rich in fossil fuels.
Simmering tensions over the issue have risen in the past two years, with the Philippines and Vietnam accusing China of becoming increasingly aggressive.
China claims most of the sea, including waters close to the shores of its neighbors.
Relations between the Philippines and China have become particularly tense since patrol vessels from both countries engaged in a stand-off over the Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island (黃岩島) in Taiwan, which also lays claim to it, in April last year.
Analysts said China’s recent prickliness meant regional alliances made sense.
“Japan and ASEAN can regard security cooperation as a realistic option because China is their common adversary,” said Hideshi Takesada, a Japanese defense expert and former professor at South Korea’s Yonsei University.
Japan reportedly plans to donate patrol boats worth more than US$10 million each to the Philippines, ramping up regional efforts to monitor China’s maritime activity in disputed waters.
The Japanese government plans hopes to sign the deal early next year, the Nikkei business daily reported last month.