Japan and Southeast Asian countries yesterday agreed to strive for “freedom of movement in the skies,” in the first major gathering of the continent’s leaders since China ramped up regional tensions with a controversial air defense zone.
At a summit in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the leaders of ASEAN “agreed to enhance co-operation in ensuring freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety.”
“The ASEAN leaders looked forward to Japan’s efforts in contributing constructively to peace, stability and development in the region,” the statement said.
China and South Korea frequently invoke the horrors of the past century in warnings against a more engaged Japanese military, but Tokyo’s relations with Southeast Asia — much of which it also brutally invaded — are less colored by history.
The endorsements for Japan came at the end of a special summit to mark its 40 years of ties with ASEAN.
The meeting was the first significant gathering of Asian leaders since China declared an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea last month, including the airspace above the Tokyo-administered Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China and Taiwan, which calls them the Diaoyutais (釣魚台).
At the time, Beijing said all aircraft entering the zone had to submit flight plans and obey orders issued by Chinese authorities, in an announcement that was widely criticized as inflammatory.
The order was immediately flouted by Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.
The summit and a cash pledge of ￥2 trillion (US$19.4 billion) for ASEAN by Japan crowns a year of courting by Abe, who has visited all 10 countries in the grouping at least once since he came to power last year, always with one eye on wresting back influence in the region from China.
“Japan and ASEAN agreed to promote further economic cooperation,” Abe told reporters.
“We welcomed the substantive agreement in the area of investment and services under the Japan-ASEAN comprehensive economic partnership,” he added.
On Friday, Tokyo boosted currency swap deals with Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as renewing one with Singapore. The deals give governments room to maneuver in times of economic stress because they can be tapped as a supply of liquid assets — usually US dollars — if normal currency markets seize up.
Tokyo’s show of financial largesse marched hand-in-hand with a push by Japanese diplomats for a forceful communique, although they acknowledged that an explicit reference to China was always going to be hard for countries in Beijing’s immediate orbit whose economies are so dependent on their giant neighbor.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have their own disputes with China over territory in the East China Sea, and are thought to be receptive to Japanese overtures.
However, all 10 members of the bloc, which also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand, have to tread a fine line to avoid irritating China, whose vast economy is vital to the region.
Abe’s charm offensive has also been aimed at drumming up business for Japan’s infrastructure-makers, with the prime minister keen to boost exports and help give the domestic economy a kick after years of lassitude.