Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday pledged to support the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in addressing the coronavirus pandemic and enhancing security amid China’s growing influence in the region.
At the beginning of an online summit with counterparts from the 10 Southeast Asian nations open to the media, Suga promised Tokyo’s continuous assistance for an ASEAN center for infectious diseases, which will be established following a proposal in April by his predecessor Shinzo Abe.
“We will not hesitate to keep supporting (the center) so that it will serve a vital role in protecting people in the region from the threat of infectious diseases,” Suga said, noting the importance of concerted measures in combating the pandemic.
Concerns are growing over the global public health crisis, with the United States, Europe and some Asian countries seeing a resurgence of virus infections.
ASEAN member states started their annual summit meetings Thursday and will discuss issues including the pandemic at a series of related gatherings to be held online in the coming days. The summit with Suga was part of the proceedings.
Suga and ASEAN leaders also affirmed cooperation in realizing an initiative adopted by the Southeast Asian countries last year to promote engagement and cooperation in the wider Indo-Pacific region.
ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, aimed at maintaining peace, freedom, and prosperity in the region, shares the same values as the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The concept, initiated by Japan and the United States, is designed to promote stability and prosperity in areas between Asia and Africa in accordance with principles such as the rule of law and the freedom of navigation.
“(These) constitute a solid base for our cooperation,” Suga said.
China has claimed sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and rapidly built artificial islands with military infrastructure in the maritime area.
Tensions between Beijing and Washington have been escalating over regional matters, including the South China Sea, with China having criticized a free and open Indo-Pacific for harming a cooperative framework centered on ASEAN.
During the summit with Suga, some ASEAN member states called for a peaceful resolution of disputes concerning the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a Japanese government official said without naming the countries.
China has conflicting territorial claims with four ASEAN members — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — as well as Taiwan in the South China Sea, a key waterway through which more than a third of global trade passes.
Japan sees cooperation with ASEAN countries as necessary to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific based on international law.
Suga also vowed to continue supporting the region through a series of infrastructure investment projects worth ¥2 trillion ($19 billion), such as building ports and railways.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
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