In his first diplomatic tour of the year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Australia and three Southeast Asian nations — the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam — to confirm the need for closer economic and security ties with these countries, with one common undertone — checking China’s increasingly assertive maritime moves in the South China Sea and its military buildup in disputed waters there.

During a Monday news conference in Hanoi wrapping up the tour, Abe said he concurred with leaders of the four countries regarding the importance of the rule of law and freedom of navigation — a reference to China’s militarization of disputed territory in the South China Sea. The message was not lost on China, whose Foreign Ministry spokeswoman charged that Abe had “ulterior motives” in highlighting the South China Sea issue during his tour and is “sparing no effort and seeking whatever means available in sowing discord.”

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