Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged Friday that his country would play a bigger security role in Asia, setting Tokyo firmly on the side of Southeast Asian nations engaged in territorial disputes with China.
Announcing the dispatch of Japanese Coast Guard vessels to Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia, Mr. Abe said Japan “intends to play a more active and proactive role” in the region and issued strong, if veiled criticism of China’s recent behavior in pressing its maritime territorial claims.
“Japan will offer its utmost support for the efforts of ASEAN countries as they work to ensure the security of the seas and the skies and maintain freedom of navigation and of overflight,” he said, referring to the Association of South East Asian Nations.
In a keynote speech to the Shangri La Dialogue, an annual forum for Asian defense and security specialists, Abe acknowledged that a number of the countries in the region that he would like to befriend had bitter memories of Japanese occupation during World War II.
But since the war, he insisted, “Japan has walked a path … abhorring war … and we will continue to walk that path for generations to come.”
The Japanese leader, who is seeking to amend his country’s pacifist Constitution to allow Japan to defend its allies and play a greater global security role, repeatedly criticized China – without mentioning it by name – for ignoring international law in its disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea with several of its smaller neighbors.
Japan is also tangled in a bitter sovereignty dispute with China over ownership of the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, known in China as the Diaoyu islands.
The 10-nation ASEAN grouping is divided, however, on how fiercely to confront China over territorial issues, since all of them depend heavily on the Asian giant for trade and economic prosperity. Only some of them, of which Vietnam and Philippines are the most vociferous, have overlapping sovereignty claims with Beijing.
Earlier this week a Vietnamese fishing vessel sank after a clash with a Chinese vessel near an oil rig that China had installed in waters also claimed by Vietnam.
The Japanese government also complained that Chinese fighter jets had flown within 100 feet of Japanese aircraft near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, as Chinese fisheries protection vessels continued to enter what Tokyo says are its waters.
“Movement to consolidate changes to the status quo by aggregating one fait accompli after another can only be strongly condemned,” Abe said. “States should make and clarify their claims based on international law. They should not use force or coercion.”
Abe also urged Beijing to set up a hotline with the Japanese military that he said he had agreed to seven years ago with then-Chinese leader Wen Jiabao. “Unfortunately this has not led to the actual operation of such a mechanism,” he added, blaming China for reneging on the agreement.
“We do not welcome dangerous encounters between fighter aircraft and vessels at sea,” he said. “What we must exchange are words.”