Japan, Asean Pledge to Work More Closely Together
Conclude Weekend Summit at Which Regional Security Was a Major Undercurrent
By TOKO SEKIGUCHI and YOSHIO TAKAHASHI CONNECT
Updated Dec. 15, 2013 11:52 a.m. ET
TOKYO—Japan and Southeast Asian nations signaled they are ready to work more closely together in the face of an increasingly assertive China, as their leaders met for a weekend summit in which concern about regional security was a major undercurrent.
But in a sign of the delicate balancing act that leaders face as they navigate the turbulent relationship between the region's two biggest powers, the gathering ended on Saturday with a joint statement that didn't mention China or its declaration of an air-defense identification zone over territory in the East China Sea that is also claimed by Japan.
In the statement, countries pledged to work together to "ensure the freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety''—in what appeared to be a veiled criticism of China's move.
The summit between the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Japan had been watched for any signs that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was succeeding in rallying support for a united front against China.On Sunday, Japan suggested it might help with a struggling development project in Myanmar—which is seeking to rely less on China and which Japan is trying to woo with investment.
Japan also made a new promise to give patrol vessels to Vietnam. It has already pledged similar vessels to the Philippines.
Both countries have territorial disputes with China over islands in the South China Sea.
"As China continues to push the envelope…it is clearly moving Asean to a more-unified voice to oppose these actions and increasing Asean's willingness to deepen ties with countries like Japan, India and the United States,'' said Ernest Bower, senior adviser and Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Underscoring the tension in the region, a U.S. Navy warship last week narrowly avoided a collision with a Chinese naval vessel when the Chinese vessel unexpectedly crossed in front of the U.S. ship's bow, U.S. military officials said Saturday.
The incident was resolved quickly but Pentagon officials described the encounter as unusually tense.
In bilateral talks with Southeast Asian leaders at the summit, Mr. Abe had presented China's move on the air-defense identification zone, or ADIZ, as an issue not only affecting Japan, nodding to tensions in the South China Sea.But several of the countries have close ties with China and have benefited from Chinese aid. All all are wary of hurting economic ties with the world's No. 2 economy by appearing to side too strongly with Japan."The statement was a good compromise between Japan's earnestness to make an explicit reference to the ADIZ and Asean's unease with a stronger stance," said Tang Siew Mun, an expert on Asia security issues at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia.
"The statement, while consistent with Asean's advocacy on the rule of law, also sends a message to Beijing that Asean will not take kindly to the possible implementation of ADIZ in the South China Sea."Most individual Asean members, too, were oblique in referring to their territorial spats with China.
Japan and Vietnam agreed that it was vital to secure maritime and aviation safety and freedom, "within a framework of international and maritime law,'' said Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, in a joint news conference with Mr. Abe on Sunday.Recent Asean meetings have failed to produce a cohesive stance over the South China Sea, with Cambodia, a close Beijing ally, accused by others of being obstructive. Asean comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
On Sunday, Cambodia spoke up for China, too, with Prime Minister Hun Sen telling Mr. Abe he was pleased to hear Japan was making efforts to improve its relationship with China, according to a briefing after the two met.
Japan pledged ¥2 trillion (about $20 billion) in aid and loans to Southeast Asian countries over the next five years at the Tokyo meeting.
Separately, Secretary of State John Kerry met was set to meet with leaders in Vietnam on Monday in an effort to improve trade and security ties between the former adversaries, highlighting U.S. interests in countering China's power in the region. The U.S. is Vietnam's second-largest trade partner after China.
Mr. Abe emphasized economic ties between Japan and Asean, saying that his "Abenomics" policies to promote Japanese growth will benefit Asean, and Asean growth is also beneficial to Japan. The two are each other's second-largest trading partners, after China.
But the weekend's gathering also underscored how regional security has come to play an important role in the relationship between Japan and Southeast Asian countries, which had historically centered on economic development, said Ken Jimbo, associate professor in the faculty of policy management at Japan's Keio University.
Mr. Abecalled for a Japan-Asean defense-minister meeting to strengthen ties for "nontraditional security matters" like disaster relief. The statement said the countries discussed Mr. Abe's new security policy that aims to expand the role of Japan's Self Defense Force in international peacekeeping. "The Asean leaders looked forward to Japan's efforts," it said.The countries also reaffirmed a pledge to "resolve disputes by peaceful means in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law," the statement said. Mr. Abe reiterated criticism of China's ADIZ in a news conference on Saturday evening, saying it "unjustly violates the freedom of flight."
"There are moves in the South China Sea and the East China Sea that appear to be unilateral challenges to the status quo," he added. "No one benefits from heightened tensions in the region."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei called Mr. Abe's remarks on the zone "malicious slander,'' and stressed that the zone wouldn't interfere with freedom of navigation.
Tokyo is "advancing a double standard and misleading international opinion," said Mr. Hong in a statement released on the ministry's website.
—Celine Fernandez in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this article.
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