MANILA – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held the annual Japan-ASEAN summit on Monday in Manila, during which Abe said Japan and ASEAN should lead the development of a “free and open” international order.
“With ASEAN having become a main actor in the world, in which democracy, the rule of law and market economies have taken root, it is important to extend ASEAN’s success to the entire Indo-Pacific region to bring out this region’s potential,” Abe said at the outset of the talks, which were open to the press.
“In the 50 years ahead, we want to lead together with ASEAN, which faces both the Indian and Pacific oceans, the development of a free and open international order based on the rule of law, building on (ASEAN’s) development so far,” Abe said.
While Tokyo has taken pains to stress that the “free and open” message is not specifically aimed at China, the importance placed on coordination with each of the 10 members of ASEAN reflects Abe’s desire to assert a place for Japan in the face of Beijing’s rising regional influence.
At the same time, Abe welcomed the agreement between ASEAN and China to start negotiations toward a code of conduct for their actions in the South China Sea, where some members of the bloc have overlapping territorial claims with Beijing.
“If diplomatic efforts like this can ease tensions, it’s natural for there to be progress in the demilitarization (of the South China Sea),” a Japanese government spokesman quoted Abe as telling the ASEAN leaders.
The spokesman confirmed that Abe made the demilitarization remark with China’s island-building in the disputed areas in mind, although he did not mention any country by name.
At the outset of the talks, Abe said Japan will provide around ¥55 billion ($484 million) over the next three years to strengthen maritime law enforcement capabilities in ASEAN.
Japan does not face the South China Sea, but the Abe administration has devoted much energy to the issue in light of both Japan’s reliance on shipping lanes in the area and Beijing’s separate claim to the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
In a joint statement to be compiled by the Philippines, Abe and the ASEAN leaders are expected to unite in condemning North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
“We need to use every means, including the complete implementation of the (U.N.) Security Council resolutions, to raise pressure on North Korea to the maximum possible extent and make it change its policies,” Abe said at the outset of the talks.
According to the Japanese spokesman, Abe told ASEAN members he hopes they will go further to curb Pyongyang’s activities in the region, warning that North Korea “has been using ASEAN for some of its trade routes and financial networks to try to evade sanctions.”
Some of the ASEAN members said in response that North Korea presents a serious threat to the region, the spokesman said without going into further detail.
Later Monday, Abe and the leaders of the Mekong nations of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam met to discuss Japan’s ongoing contributions to the development of the region.
According to the Foreign Ministry, the Mekong leaders voiced support for initiatives to improve connectivity in the region as part of Japan’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy.
Both Japan and China have poured money and attention in recent years into the strategically important Mekong region, which includes less economically developed members of ASEAN.
Abe and the Mekong leaders also confirmed their cooperation in improving conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where violence has sparked an exodus of more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees.