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Abe to put forward Japan as counterweight to China

AFP , Thursday 29 May 2014
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Photo:Reuters)

Japan's prime minister will lay out a vision of Tokyo as a counterweight to the growing might of China this weekend, at a major security forum set to be dominated by escalating regional disputes.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will tell the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue that Japan and its partner the United States stand ready to jointly bolster security cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Sankei Shimbun newspaper reported.

He will stop short of singling out China, the paper added, but there will be little doubt about where he thinks the blame lies for the various rows in the South China Sea, and in Japan's own battle with Beijing over East China Sea islands.

Abe will likely "announce his aim to play more active roles in Asia by using the Japan-US alliance as the foundation," said Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.

The nationalist premier has set about reshaping the rules of engagement for Japan's powerful, though little-used, military as he pushes a doctrine he has dubbed "proactive pacifism".

He has offered support -- both practical and rhetorical -- to Manila and Hanoi, in the form of coastguard vessels and public pronouncements.

Both are engaged in corrosive territorial rows with Beijing, and both are heavily outgunned by China, whose military has enjoyed double-digit budget rises annually for more than a decade.

Abe will be hoping that other countries in the region will see that succour as a sign of Japan's willingness to engage, offering them an alternative to Chinese power from the only country with the military clout.

During his keynote speech Friday which kicks off the three-day Asia Security Summit in Singapore, Abe will urge China to respect the rule of law, Kyodo News said, at a time that the impression is growing in the region that the world's number two economy is becoming increasingly assertive.

Abe will call for "constructive discussions", said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, to take the heat out of rows that pit China against a number of ASEAN countries, as well as Tokyo against Beijing.

"Considering the heightening situations in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, we hope that various constructive discussions will take place toward this region's peace and safety" at the forum, he said.

Since coming to power in late 2012, Abe has assiduously courted ASEAN, visiting all 10 member countries at least once.

He has still not been to China, nor met with Xi Jinping, its president.

Some ASEAN members have been bolder than others in standing up to China; Vietnam and the Philippines have both proved willing to push back, despite their relative military weakness.

Others have been less keen to put their heads above the parapet for fear of angering Beijing.

China, which insists it owns virtually the whole of the South China Sea, prefers to tackle ASEAN members individually so that it never faces a bloc-wide response to its claims to islands far from its shores.

The most volatile of the rows involving China escalated Tuesday when Hanoi claimed a Chinese vessel had rammed and sunk a fishing boat near a drilling rig in contested waters.

No one was hurt in the incident, but it was believed to be the first sinking since ships from the two sides started duelling over the area several weeks ago.

Suga said if the reports were true, the ramming was an "extremely dangerous act".

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published Tuesday, Abe said Beijing's "unilateral drilling activities" for oil in waters claimed also by Hanoi have led to a "heightening of tensions".

"We will never tolerate the change of status quo by force or coercion," Abe told the paper.

Beijing shot back, arguing that Japan had stirred up trouble in the South China Sea during World War II and should mind its business.

"Japanese leaders like to make an issue of China's force," said a foreign ministry spokesman on Tuesday. "The force we have is a wave of positive energy that promotes world peace, stability and development."

Much of Asia -- save China and the Korean peninsula -- appears at ease with a more engaged Japan, but Abe must face down opposition at home for plans to allow his armed forces to help allies under fire -- something barred under current interpretations of Japan's constitution.

But while he may be pushing against an open door with ASEAN, he would be wise not to push too hard and make member nations feel they were being asked to choose between Tokyo and Beijing, warned Sophia University's Nakano.

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