Japanese defense officials and their Southeast Asian counterparts agreed this week on the need to deepen regional cooperation amid concerns about China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, as Tokyo again signaled its willingness to play a bigger role with its neighbors.
The relationship between Japan and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has “matured from dialogues to one where Japan plays a more specific cooperative role” on a range of regional security issues, Japanese Vice Minister of Defense Kimito Nakae said Thursday in Tokyo, the day after meeting with senior defense officials from the 10 Asean nations.
Mr. Nakae was speaking at the opening of a seminar on common security issues held the day after the annual defense meeting. Attended by representatives of Japan and Asean countries, which include the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand, the seminar this year prominently featured maritime issues.
At the meeting, Asean nation officials underlined the need to establish a common understanding on the interpretation of international law regarding freedom of navigation, and to implement a formal, binding code of conduct to keep disputes in check. Several countries, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, have territorial claims that conflict with China’s in the South China Sea, which some geologists suspect covers oil and gas reserves.
Bolstering the possibility of establishing a wider multilateral strategic framework, Mr. Nakae said resolving the maritime problem requires stronger cooperation from Japan, the U.S. and others.
China’s growing naval confidence was the primary subject discussed by a panel of regional security experts during the session on “efforts to strengthen maritime security in the region.”
“Chinese naval activism will not likely be a temporary phenomenon, but will be a permanent feature of Asian politics in the years to come,” said one panelist, Toshi Yoshihara, a professor of Asia-Pacific studies at the U.S. Naval War College. “Maritime Asia is going to be a busy place. It is going to be a busy theater as China fulfills what it believes is its rightful maritime prerogative.”
Earlier this week, Japan and the Philippines tightened military and security ties, elevating the bilateral relationship to a “strategic partnership” in a joint statement signed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III in Tokyo.
By YOREE KOH, Copyright 2011 Dow Jones