BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conveyed to his ASEAN counterparts Wednesday in Brunei that Tokyo is ready to improve ties with Beijing through dialogue while at the same time expressing concern over China’s behavior by referring to attempts to change the status quo by force.
In a bid to assuage concern about his administration’s purported tilt to the right, Abe also addressed his moves toward lifting Japan’s self-imposed ban on aiding allies that come under armed attack — collective self-defense — and creating a U.S.-style National Security Council.
Concern persists within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for which China is the most important single trading partner, over the soured ties between Beijing and Tokyo that largely stem from the Senkaku Islands dispute.
Abe told the ASEAN leaders he is ready to advance cooperation with China, pointing out that a good relationship with Beijing is vital for Japan.
“The door to dialogue is always open,” he was quoted by Japanese officials as telling the leaders at the Japan-ASEAN summit.
But he also said he is “very concerned” about the territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea involving China and some ASEAN countries, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, saying there are “moves aimed at changing the status quo by force,” according to the officials.
He spoke of the need to resolve the disputes in accordance with international law and called on ASEAN countries to maintain unity, while pledging Japan’s continuing cooperation because it as a “common problem.”
In briefing the ASEAN leaders on his effort to change security policy, Abe said the security environment in Asia has become more severe and Japan therefore “intends to contribute to regional and international peace and stability more proactively than before from the standpoint of active pacifism.”
There was a voice among the ASEAN leaders supporting the move, apparently in the hope Tokyo will contribute to world peace as a global power, according to one of the Japanese officials. None of the leaders expressed disapproval, the official added.
In a chairman’s statement issued after the summit, the leaders vowed to advance negotiations with China on a legally binding code of conduct aimed at reducing conflict in the South China Sea.
“We look forward to intensifying official consultations with China on the development of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea with a view to its early conclusion,” said the statement.
But Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in a meeting with ASEAN leaders later Wednesday, appeared cool to such an initiative, saying Beijing does not want to “internationalize” the disputes and prefers to address them with the other claimants one at a time, according to an ASEAN diplomatic source.
China’s increasingly assertive claim to most of the disputed sea — which has some of the world’s busiest shipping routes and is believed to be rich in oil and gas — overlaps claims from Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
While lobbying some ASEAN members to prevent the 10-member bloc from forging consensus on the South China Sea issue, China has warned the United States not to intervene in the disputes.
The United States has not publicly taken sides, but U.S. officials have reiterated Washington’s “vital interest” in freedom of navigation in the sea and its eagerness to see a code of conduct signed.
Among other issues discussed during the summit, the leaders expressed concern about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and underscored the importance of resolving the crisis in a peaceful manner, according to the chairman’s statement.
The leaders called for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and for increased dialogue among countries in Northeast Asia to achieve an early resumption of the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, it said.
They confirmed steady growth and an upbeat outlook for the ASEAN economy and emphasized the importance of deepening and broadening economic integration to achieve the ASEAN Economic Community by 2015.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.