Biden and Abe urge restraint on territorial disputes

Visiting leaders seek to keep the peace amid rising tensions in Asia-Pacific region

AMID a flare-up in the region's territorial disputes, the United States and Japan called for restraint and dialogue to prevent the Asia-Pacific from being marred by military intimidation.

Visiting US Vice-President Joe Biden, who expressed concerns about rising tension in the South China Sea, urged China and Asean to "quickly reach agreement" on a code of conduct to manage territorial disputes there.

Separately, Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, who was in Singapore yesterday as part of a three- country South-east Asia tour, called for a Sino-Japanese leaders' summit to help ease tension over a row in the East China Sea involving several small islands.

"I would like to hold a summit as promptly as possible with no preconditions attached," Mr Abe told a public lecture.

"We are neighbours and we should meet and try to resolve this."

The Chinese foreign ministry reacted coolly to Mr Abe's offer, as the two countries' militaries continued a cat-and-mouse game over the disputed islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

On Wednesday, Japan scrambled several fighter planes after a Chinese military jet was seen for the first time flying through international airspace near the Japanese southern islands of Okinawa and Miyako.

Yesterday, four Chinese Coast Guard vessels reportedly ordered several Japanese ships to leave the waters around the disputed isles.

These incidents have raised fears that an accidental clash could escalate beyond control.

In a meeting between Mr Biden and Mr Abe here where their paths crossed yesterday, the Vice-President reiterated the US position that the disputed islands in the East China Sea were part of its commitment under a US- Japan security treaty.

But he also urged "all sides to take steps to reduce tensions".

Following a meeting with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Mr Biden also addressed tension in the South China Sea, a busy shipping lane where China and several Asean states have overlapping territorial claims.

He told reporters: "All the parties have a common interest in freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution to territorial disputes.

The US urges all parties to reject coercion, intimidation, threats and the use of force."

At a recent Asean summit, China and its South-east Asian neighbours made progress on the long-stalled code of conduct to manage disputes in the resource- rich waters by agreeing to begin formal talks in September.

But the maritime tension did not dampen Mr Biden and Mr Abe's upbeat assessment about the region's economic prospects.

Mr Abe said he saw Asean as the "21st century's champion in fostering the vast middle-class consumer market".

Mr Biden also stressed Asean's growing importance to the US economy, and cited the Trans- Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation free trade agreement, as another way for the US and Asia-Pacific countries to build on their economic ties.

During their meetings with Mr Lee and other Singapore leaders, Mr Biden and Mr Abe also reaffirmed the warm bilateral relations with Singapore and called for further mutual cooperation.

Said PM Lee: "Singapore is friends with America; also with India, with Japan, with China and the other major powers, and we would like to maintain our good relations with all countries."

chinhon@sph.com.sg

chanckr@sph.com.sg

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