• Reuters, Kyodo


France and Japan touted support for a “free and open maritime order” in the Asia-Pacific region, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said after talks with French President Francois Hollande on Monday.

The message seemed aimed at China, which claims almost all the South China Sea and has fueled concerns in Japan and the West with its growing military presence in the strategic waterway.

“Francois and I agreed on the importance of ensuring a free and open maritime order in the Indo-Pacific region (and) of continuing to support the stability and prosperity of this region,” Abe told reporters after the talks.

Japan plans to dispatch its largest warship on a three-month tour through the South China Sea beginning in May, three sources said last week, in its biggest show of naval force in the region since World War II. China pledged a firm response if Japan stirred up trouble in the South China Sea.

Abe underlined the importance of separate naval exercises involving personnel or equipment from Japan, France, Britain and the United States to be held around Tinian Island in the Western Pacific in May.

Hollande said France reaffirmed its support for an increased Japanese peacekeeping role and said the two countries would work together to improve the ability of their forces to cooperate.

He assured Abe of France’s support after North Korea this month fired four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan — a drill by the reclusive nation that was practice for targeting U.S. military bases in Japan.

He also denounced the development of North Korea’s nuclear arms and ballistic programs, which he said violated all its international obligations.

On other fronts, France and Japan also inked a deal on reinforced nuclear energy  cooperation.

The two countries agreed to jointly research a French-led fast-reactor development project called ASTRID (Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration).

As the leaders met, industry minister Hiroshige Seko, who is accompanying Abe, and French environment minister Segolene Royal signed the nuclear power cooperation deal to work together on nuclear fuel-cycle and fast-reactor development.

France aims to start the operation of ASTRID in the 2030s.

Abe and Hollande also attended a signing ceremony for a deal in which Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. will each acquire a 5 percent stake in a nuclear fuel-reprocessing joint-venture to be established by French atomic energy firm Areva.

Reflecting concerns over rising protectionist sentiment in the United States and elsewhere, Abe said Japan and France hoped to continue to be “champions of free trade” and said an agreement on a free trade pact with the European Union would send an important message.

The Japanese leader expressed Tokyo’s support for “a strong Europe” to be maintained even after Britain’s forthcoming exit from the bloc.

“Japan and Europe must fly the flag of free trade high, together with the United States,” Abe said.

Hollande also voiced support for the proposed EU-Japan trade accord, which is currently being negotiated.

Abe had earlier met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Hanover, Germany, on the first leg of his trip.

Abe and Merkel agreed Monday that Japan and Europe should work together with the U.S. to promote free trade.

Abe said he and Merkel agreed to continue to work in coordination toward a broad conclusion of the EU free trade negotiations.

“The negotiations on the EPA between Japan and the European Union are very advanced and are coming to the final stage,” Merkel said at the news conference, referring to the ongoing talks for the economic partnership agreement.

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