PHNOM PENH – Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Monday emphasized the importance of international law in resolving territorial rows in the South China Sea during a summit in Cambodia with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Noda’s remarks reflect Japan’s desire for vigilance in the face of China’s rapidly expanding naval capacity in resource-rich Asian waters as the two nations remain locked in the bitter dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, diplomats said.
Noda told the ASEAN members that issues related to the South China Sea are an “international common concern,” without specifying China by name, according to the Foreign Ministry.
Noda, however, said the Japan-China relationship is “one of (Japan’s) most important bilateral relationships” and his administration will deal with matters between the two countries in a “calm and peaceful” manner, the ministry said.
On Sunday, ASEAN nations urged China to quickly begin top-level talks over tense territorial disputes, after forging a united position on how to tackle their giant neighbor.
“On the ASEAN side, (we are) ready, willing and very much committed but it takes two to tango,” ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters after the Southeast Asian leaders held their own talks in Phnom Penh. “The ASEAN side is ready and waiting for our Chinese friends to come forward.”
He said the ASEAN leaders wanted to begin “more formal and official” talks on a legally binding code of conduct aimed at easing tensions in the South China Sea “as soon as possible.”
Noda and the ASEAN leaders reaffirmed their friendship and strategic partnership to maintain regional peace and stability in line with a joint declaration adopted in Bali, Indonesia, last year, the Foreign Ministry said.
The declaration mentions maritime security in the wake of tensions in the South China Sea, where China is involved in territorial disputes with four ASEAN members — Brunei, Malaysia and most notably Vietnam and the Philippines.
Japan is not directly involved in the South China Sea, but it is willing to help ASEAN resolve disputes peacefully given tensions over the Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan but claimed by China.
Relations between Tokyo and Beijing have been strained since the central government purchased some of the uninhabited islets, called Diaoyu in China, from a Saitama man in September.
Other than maritime issues, Japan and the ASEAN members pledged to strengthen disaster management cooperation, especially since several ASEAN nations are vulnerable to natural disasters such as typhoons and floods.