SINGAPORE – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged Friday to support Vietnam and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with China, saying the use of force and intimidation to change the status quo cannot be justified.
In a speech at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore, Abe said the rule of law is what makes the Asia-Pacific region stable, adding that countries should adhere to international law, avoid resorting to force and resolve conflicts peacefully.
The speech, the first by a Japanese prime minister at the forum also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, came amid a recent spike in regional tensions as China and Vietnam continue to clash over Beijing’s deployment of an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea, and Japan and China raise the aerial ante in their dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Abe expressed hope that a code of conduct will be put in place in the South China Sea soon and said Japan is studying the possibility of providing patrol ships to Vietnam.
Tokyo and Beijing remain at odds over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands. Last week, Chinese fighter jets tried to intimidate Self-Defense Forces surveillance planes in the area by making very close approaches to them in an area where their air defense identification zones reportedly overlap.
To avoid contingencies in the sea and skies, Abe urged China to keep a promise it made in 2007 to set up a communications mechanism and pursue dialogue.
Abe is trying to bolster Japan’s defense capabilities as part of his plan for to broadly remodel the nation’s security apparatus to better address an increasingly assertive China and North Korea’s missile and nuclear development programs.
At the same time, he is strengthening bilateral ties not just with Japan’s traditional ally, the United States, but also with Southeast Asian countries and Australia to counterbalance the rise of China.
The Shangri-La Dialogue is being held as domestic debate intensifies over whether Japan should be able to legally exercise its right to collective self-defense, which would mark a major departure from the pacifist policy that has guided it since it lost the war.
But Abe emphasized that Japan will continue to be a pacifist state that makes greater contributions to global peace.
Japan’s move to lift the ban on defending allies under armed attack has unnerved Asian neighbors such as China and South Korea, which tasted Japan’s wartime aggression first-hand. Experts say that how to dispel concerns Tokyo may be reverting to militarism is an important task for Abe.
The experts say that any exchange of words between Tokyo and Beijing will be closely watched, especially after Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the creation of a new Asian security structure including Russia but not the United States.
Accompanying Abe, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera is expected to call on China in a speech on Saturday to exercise restraint and ensure the rule of law.
Such a message was confirmed when Onodera and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with their Australian counterpart, David Johnston. The defense chiefs of Japan, the United States and South Korea will also hold talks on the sidelines of the forum.