Uphold rule of law at sea, urges Japanese foreign minister

Amid growing tensions in the South China Sea, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida has called on regional countries to uphold the rule of law to maintain peace and stability in the region.

He also urged Asean to "strengthen its unity" as well as exert "its centrality in regional cooperation in East Asia".

Speaking yesterday in Bangkok on the second leg of his eight-day Asia tour which includes Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, Mr Kishida told the audience at Chulalongkorn University: "The area where the principle of the 'rule of law' is now most at stake is maritime security."

He urged all countries concerned to adhere to three principles of the rule of law at sea earlier distilled by Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: That claimant states shall make their claims based on international law, not use force or coercion, and seek to settle their disputes by peaceful means.

The foreign minister reiterated his call for an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea to be established.

Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (left) meeting Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at Government House in Bangkok. Mr Kishida urged Asean countries to adhere to three principles of the rule of law at sea in order to maintain peace and stabil
Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (left) meeting Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at Government House in Bangkok. Mr Kishida urged Asean countries to adhere to three principles of the rule of law at sea in order to maintain peace and stability in the region. PHOTO: REUTERS

While his speech did not mention China by name, it comes amid much political jockeying in the lead-up to an international tribunal ruling on the rival claims by Manila and Beijing, which asserts ownership over most of the South China Sea.

China's claims over the strategic waterway overlap with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. The Asian giant has insisted on dealing with these territorial disputes on a bilateral basis, and says that it will not recognise the upcoming ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a petition by the Philippines.

While China has reclaimed islands to widen its military control of the seas, it also announced last month that it had come to an agreement with Laos, Cambodia and Brunei that the South China Sea problem was "not an issue between China and Asean as a whole".

The last development was seen by analysts as a move to prevent the regional bloc from taking a common position after the ruling.

Japan, which has its own territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea, has offered assistance to the Philippines and Vietnam in the form of leased aircraft and ships to help them patrol their waters more effectively.

Mr Kishida, who visited China before flying to Thailand, met his Thai counterpart Mr Don Pramudwinai on Sunday and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha yesterday. Japan and Thailand also signed a memorandum of intent to establish a high-level cooperation dialogue between their agricultural ministries to boost cooperation on aspects like water management and irrigation as well as information and communications technology.

Japan has long been one of Thailand's largest investors and more than 4,500 Japanese companies are operating in Thailand.

In his speech, Mr Kishida sought help from Asean's second largest economy to improve connectivity in the Mekong region countries, which Tokyo was planning to support with a 750 billion yen (S$9.5 billion) commitment over the next three years.

The Thai government is currently clamping down on critics of a draft Constitution which will be put to a referendum on Aug 7, as part of its road map to return to a civilian government.

Said Mr Kishida: "I strongly hope the people of Thailand will overcome the current difficult challenges and play a more active role in the region and the international community."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Uphold rule of law at sea, urges Japanese foreign minister'. Print Edition | Subscribe