JAPAN and Asean should work closely to engage the United States in Asia as the American presence is vital to preserving the rule of law in Asian waters, said the Japanese Minister for Ocean Policy and Territorial Issues.
"We consider the Japan-China relationship to be one of the most important bilateral relationships," Mr Ichita Yamamoto, a key confidant of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, told The Straits Times in an interview yesterday. "Having said that, we are greatly concerned over recent moves by China in the East China Sea and South China Sea to change the status quo.
"To promote prosperity in the region, we need the US, which has the will and the capability, to preserve the rule of law," said Mr Yamamoto, 57, whose portfolios include science and technology policy, and affairs concerning Okinawa and the Northern Territories. He was speaking on the last day of a trip that had taken him to Malaysia and Vietnam as well.
Earlier in the day, at the Fullerton Lecture organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, he described the Japan-US alliance as a "common good in the region, from which both Japan and Asean benefit".
Tensions with Beijing flared after Tokyo nationalised islands in the East China Sea called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Amid a surge of nationalism in both nations, China sent warships into waters around the islands to be confronted by Japanese maritime self-defence vessels.
In November, it announced an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), which includes parts of territories claimed by Japan and South Korea. Last week, it set new fishing restrictions for disputed waters in the South China Sea, a move the US called "provocative and potentially dangerous".
However, Washington has also been critical of Mr Abe's Dec 26 visit to the Yasukuni war shrine and has taken a different tack from Japan on China's ADIZ.
The US was critical of Beijing's move, but it still asked its civilian carriers to comply with the new rules and report movement through the zone.
In contrast, Japan ordered its airlines to ignore the Chinese regulation. Indeed, some analysts wonder whether Japan is developing an "Obama problem" - with a US president who will not stick his neck out for allies beyond a point.
In the interview, Mr Yamamoto denied Tokyo was worried that US commitment to the alliance and the region is wavering.
"I am sure Abe has taken note of the opinions expressed by allies," he said, adding that the alliance has become even stronger.
There is worry around Asia that tensions between the region's two most powerful nations could lead to a fatal miscalculation - and armed conflict.
Mr Yamamoto conceded this matter was a point of concern.
"There is the risk of an accidental clash (at sea), but even more, in the air. But I am sure the foreign ministries are in consultation, though you might not see it...we do need to establish a mechanism to avoid clashes."
There are concerns that fresh tensions with China and South Korea could break out as Japan prepares to register 280 remote islands as national assets. Mr Yamamoto described the move as an ongoing process.
"This is about bringing remote, uninhabited islands under proper administration," he said. "This is not new. Japan has done these things for a long time."