SEOUL — Japan is looking to deepen political, economic and defense ties with Southeast Asia amid mutual tensions with China over disputed territories. Those tensions were a focal point of discussions at a regional summit in Tokyo that ended Sunday. For Southeast Asian nations with close ties to Beijing, the talks also spotlighted the difficult balancing act in which its leaders must engage.
Leaders in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Japan met in Tokyo recently and agreed on the importance of freedom of navigation in the region's international skies and waters.
The summit statement came just weeks after China announced a controversial expansion to its Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea.
According to China, any aircraft wanting to enter China's expanded ADIZ in the East China Sea is required to first notify Chinese authorities. However, the zone covers territory that is also claimed by Japan and South Korea. The move by Beijing sparked objections from Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington that Beijing is trying to change the status quo.
At a press conference following the Japan-ASEAN meetings, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on China to rescind the expansion.
Abe called for the withdrawal of all measures that violate the general principles of freedom of navigation, as understood in international law. He added that Japan has no intention of changing the government's policy to advise Japanese civilian airline companies to continue their normal operations.
The Japanese-administered Senkaku islands are known as the Diaoyu islands in China. Beijing sends frequent patrols of coast guard boats and military jets near the area. Chinese officials assert the islands are Beijing's and routinely denounce Japanese criticisms as unfounded.
The standoff over the islands in the East China Sea has echoes in the South China Sea. There, China claims most of the territory, overlapping with claims held by ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
China's ambassador to Manila said Beijing has the right to announce a similar air defense identification zone in the South China Sea.
Political analysts say China's aggressive stance on the disputed territory has made it lose diplomatic ground in Southeast Asia that Japan is working to gain.
At the summit, Japan pledged $19 billion in aid and loans to the ASEAN region and to deepen defense cooperation.
Abe offered the Philippines aid to help the recovery efforts after Typhoon Haiyan, along with coast guard vessels. He also offered patrol boats to Vietnam.
In a further sign of the importance Japan places on cultivating ties with Southeast Asia, while he has yet to call on Beijing, Abe has visited all ten ASEAN nations.
Nonetheless, as with Japan, China is ASEAN's number one trading partner and some members remain much closer to Beijing than Tokyo.
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Japan's Temple University, thinks ASEAN is seeking Japan to act as a counterweight to China in the region.
“When Abe toured the region he was promoting something called the 'Arc of Freedom and Prosperity,' based on common values. And, this concept was clearly aimed at containing China. And, back in 2007 the reception was quite lukewarm. Now I think that China has... [acted] like the plausible bogeyman. And, so I think that the reception is a lot warmer now and I think the ASEAN countries are in a hedging mood,” said Kingston.
Underlining the potential for conflict with China, the U.S. Navy said on Saturday that one of its guided missile cruisers was forced to change course after a Chinese warship stopped in its path last week in the South China Sea.
Pentagon officials say the Navy vessel USS Cowpens was in international waters, observing China's new Liaoning aircraft carrier. They say a smaller Chinese ship then moved in front of the U.S. vessel, forcing it to come to a full halt.