SINGAPORE - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday outlined his vision for a more robust Japanese role in the region's peace and security, arguing at the opening of a top defence forum here that no country could secure peace on its own in a complex new environment.
Mr Abe did not directly name China as being the country responsible for the change. But he left his audience at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in little doubt by repeatedly using language that Tokyo had employed in criticising Beijing's behaviour in the region's territorial disputes.
"Movement to consolidate changes to the status quo by aggregating one fait accompli after another can only be strongly condemned," Mr Abe added in his keynote speech - the first by a Japanese leader at the forum - in which he dwelt at length on the need to observe international maritime laws.
His comments did not go unchallenged by the Chinese delegation at the three-day forum, a gathering for defence ministers and top military brass from the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. It is organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Lieutenant-Colonel Xu Qiyu from China's People's Liberation Army questioned how Japan could speak for regional peace given its war-time past, and Mr Abe's visit last December to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine, which honours Japan's war dead, among them 14 war criminals.
Mr Abe responded by expressing remorse for the war and pledged never to wage war. He side-stepped, however, a question on whether Japan would go to war with China over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
The pointed exchanges last night were indicative of the charged atmosphere at this year's Shangri-La Dialogue. Aside from long-standing Sino-Japanese friction, regional tension has also spiked in the past month due to a worsening confrontation between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea over the positioning of a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by both countries.
Mr Abe said Japan supported South-east Asian countries in their attempts to resolve the dispute peacefully. He also pledged to help boost maritime security in the region by providing new patrol vessels to the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.
"We are in an era in which it is no longer possible for any one nation to secure its own peace only by itself," said Mr Abe.
"That is exactly why it is incumbent upon us in Japan to reconstruct the legal basis pertinent to the right of collective self-defence and to international cooperation," he added.
He was referring to his controversial attempt to lift a constitutional ban on Japan's Self-Defence Forces going to the aid of allies under armed attack, an act outlawed since World War II.
Earlier yesterday, he toured Singapore's two integrated resorts at Marina Bay and Sentosa. Japan is said to be mulling plans to liberalise its casino industry to boost tourism and investments.