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Japan, ASEAN tie up on flight rights

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed Saturday to bolster cooperation on ensuring “the freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety,” alluding to the risks posed by China’s new air defense identification zone over the East China Sea.

In a joint statement issued to conclude the Japan-ASEAN special summit in Tokyo, the leaders confirmed they would join hands to keep maritime navigation safe as Beijing increasingly flexes its muscles in the East and South China seas.

The statement, however, did not specifically mention China or its contentious new ADIZ.

“We also agreed to enhance cooperation in ensuring the freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS, and the relevant standards and recommended practices by the International Civil Aviation Organization,” the statement said, citing the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

It also said Japan and the 10 ASEAN member nations underscore the importance of maintaining peace, stability and prosperity in the region and of promoting “maritime security and safety, freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, exercise of self-restraint and resolution of disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law.”

“We also confirmed the importance of freedom of flight over the high seas, which is the general principle under international law,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a joint news conference with the ASEAN leaders at the government guesthouse in Akasaka.

“As for maritime issues, especially those concerning the East China Sea, we agreed that we should comply with international law and not use coercion to unilaterally change the status quo,” he said.

Abe’s main goal at the summit, held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Japan-ASEAN ties, was to garner regional support for his government’s view that China’s new ADIZ constitutes aggressive and coercive behavior because it covers the Senkaku Islands, which Japan has administered for decades. China claims the chain as Diaoyu and was infuriated after Japan effectively nationalized the uninhabited islets in September 2012 to prevent nationalist Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara from buying them.

Beijing is asserting that all aircraft planning to enter the ADIZ must obey its rules and submit flight plans beforehand or face “defensive emergency measures.”

Abe also stressed that Japan has no plans to soften its request to the major domestic airlines that they refrain from submitting flight plans to China before entering the ADIZ. Carriers from Southeast Asia and South Korea, however, are apparently complying with Beijing’s new rules.

Japanese diplomats had been urging their ASEAN counterparts to make a sharp reference to China’s new ADIZ in the joint statement.

Analysts say the air zone is Beijing’s attempt to “unilaterally change the status quo” to bolster its claims to the Senkakus.

During one of the morning sessions, Abe said he was concerned about “unilateral attempts to change the status quo and a move to restrict international flight system,” a government official later told reporters.

Abe, however, did not directly mention China nor the ADIZ at the talks, the official said.

In the afternoon session, Abe pledged to extend ¥2 trillion in official development assistance over a five-year period to ASEAN members to take Japan’s ties with the bloc to a higher level.

The ODA includes ¥300 billion to bolster the region’s disaster management framework and to foster a disaster prevention workforce constituting 1,000 employees.

Separately, Abe also pledged an additional $100 million (¥10.3 billion) to the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund.

Abe was also quoted by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato as telling the various leaders that states with conflicting claims in the South China Sea should not take unilateral action because they have a duty to “uphold freedom of navigation and the rule of law.”

Among ASEAN members, the Philippines and Vietnam are mired in similar territorial rows with China in the South China Sea.

Abe said he hopes claimant states will “draw up as soon as possible an effective Code of Conduct” — a legally binding rule book designed to prevent maritime conflicts, according to Kato.

China and ASEAN launched consultations on such a code in September, the leaders’ joint statement said.

The leaders meanwhile said they “looked forward to Japan’s efforts in contributing constructively to peace, stability and development in the region,” the statement added.

The call to ensure freedom of overflight was also contained in a separate document issued by Japan and ASEAN to map out a vision for stronger political, economic and cultural ties.

The summit was the first of its kind held in Tokyo since 2003.

On the sidelines, Abe was scheduled to hold bilateral meetings Sunday with the leaders of Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia. He held separate talks with the heads of Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines and Singapore on Friday.

Information from Kyodo added