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Japan bolsters security ties with neighbors at summit amid tensions with China

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, left, greets Indonesia's President Joko Widodo upon arrival for the opening session of ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit Meeting at the Hotel Okura Tokyo in Tokyo Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023.
Kazuhiro Nogi
/
AP
Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, left, greets Indonesia's President Joko Widodo upon arrival for the opening session of ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit Meeting at the Hotel Okura Tokyo in Tokyo Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023.

TOKYO — Leaders from Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, at a special summit in Tokyo on Sunday, adopted a joint vision that emphasizes security and economic cooperation while respecting the rule of law, amid growing tensions with China in regional seas.

Ties between Japan and the 10-member ASEAN bloc used to be largely based on Japanese assistance to the developing economies, in part due to lingering bitterness over Japan's wartime actions. But in recent years the relationship has focused more on security amid China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, while Japan's postwar pacifist stance and trust-building efforts have fostered friendlier relations.

The summit marks the 50th anniversary of official Japan-ASEAN ties, which started in 1973 with trade talks over Japanese synthetic rubber exports.

The leaders, in a joint statement, called for strengthening their "mutually beneficial" partnership and working together for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, especially in maritime security. They also called for economic security and greater supply chain resilience for the region and to promote the movement of one another's nationals.

"We affirm the shared view to promote a rules-based Indo-Pacific region that is free and open (and) embraces key principles such as ASEAN's unity and centrality, inclusiveness (and) transparency," according to the joint statement.

The leaders stressed "respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means and renunciation of the threat or use of force."

They did not specifically mention China. During the summit meeting, they raised concerns over the "situation in East and South China Sea" and noted the importance of upholding international law, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The leaders adopted an implementation plan for 130 projects. Japan called for stepping up security and defense cooperation, such as arms technology and equipment transfers, cybersecurity and tackling disinformation. Tokyo also pledged to reinforce support for efforts against climate change, green technology and digital transformation, as well as investment, including in the region's automotive industry.

"As divisions and confrontations deepen and the world faces compounded crises, Japan will tackle the issues together with ASEAN, which is the linchpin of a 'free and open Indo-Pacific," Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told a joint news conference with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, this year's ASEAN chair.

"Based on our mutual trust, we will tackle new issues, and contribute to peace and prosperity of the region in order to create a world where people can benefit while their dignity is respected."

Japan adopted a new security strategy last year and has been rapidly building up its military and expanding its military partnerships to better counter China's growing assertiveness in the region.

On Saturday, on the sidelines of the summit, Kishida held a series of bilateral talks as Japan seeks to step up bilateral security ties with ASEAN countries.

Kishida and his Malaysian counterpart, Anwar Ibrahim, signed a 400 million yen ($2.8 million) deal to bolster Malaysia's maritime security capability as part of a Japanese official security assistance program specifically for militaries of friendly nations to help strengthen their law enforcement and security capabilities.

The assistance includes provisions of rescue boats and other equipment to help improve the military capability of Malaysia, which sits at a crucial location on sea lanes connecting the Indian Ocean and East Asia and serves a vital role in warning and surveillance operations for the entire region.

Separately on Saturday, Kishida signed a deal with Widodo, offering a grant of up to 9.05 billion yen ($63.7 million) to fund Indonesia's maritime security capability advancement plan, including a Japanese-built large-scale maritime patrol boat.

In November, Japan announced a provision of coastal surveillance radars to the Philippine navy, and the two sides also agreed to start talks for a key defense pact called the Reciprocal Access Agreement designed to smooth their troops' entry into each other's territory for joint military exercises. On Sunday, Japan and the Philippines signed an agreement to strengthen cooperation between their coast guards.

Also last month, Japan and Vietnam agreed to elevate the status of their relationship to a top-level comprehensive strategic partnership, under which they will discuss details of a possible deal to broaden their defense cooperation.

But ASEAN countries are not in lockstep in their stance toward China, with which many have strong ties and are reluctant to choose sides. Japanese officials say they are mindful of the situation.

On Monday, Japan also hopes to push forward energy cooperation with ASEAN leaders at a summit for the Asian Zero Emission Community initiative. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is expected to join online.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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The Associated Press